GeekDad Review: D&D 4th Edition (part 1 of 3)

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PhbPhbSubmariners, arctic explorers and others who have been off the grid for a while may be shocked to hear that there’s a new version of Dungeons & Dragons on the shelves. For those of us who have heard, questions may still linger. If we loved the previous edition, is the upgrade worth it? For newbies, does the latest D&D merit exploration?

In this first review I’m writing mostly about the Player’s Handbook, pretty much the most indispensable of the three core books. In parts two and three I’ll cover the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

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Things I Like
Remember that classic D&D magic-user? First level, 3 hit points, armed with a dagger and having a Magic Missile spell memorized. Once per day, he can cast his spell and do 2-5 points of damage. If he is unfortunate enough to engage in melee combat with an opponent, his lack of armor and nigh-useless weapon doom him to a quick demise. In 4E, that magic-user is gone and unlamented. Low-level wizards in D&D 4E have so much more capability.

Start with hit points. You get 10 plus your Constitution score, not to mention at least six "healing surges" (more on this later) per day. Forget a single spell, at 1st level you get two "at will" spells that can be used whenever you desire. For instance, if you take Magic Missile, you inflict 2d4 points of damage plus bonuses, and can cast it at will. Basically, spells are feats now. In place of a fighter’s combat maneuvers, a wizard has spells. Some feats are usable at will, others can be used one or more times per encounter, others are daily.

The tradeoff for previous editions’ spellcasters was vast power at higher levels. A 30th level wizard was nigh godly, and could eat a similar level fighter’s lunch. Not so in 4E, where a wizard has no more feats than a rogue or cleric does. For the most part I felt that spellcasters were more powerful at low levels but less powerful at high levels. A lot of people have been talking about how MMPORGs have influenced D&D, particularly toward making advancement more fun. There are cool new powers at nearly every level, and all the classes are equally balanced.

In addition to being tougher at lower levels, all PCs now have the ability to heal themselves. Say what? This isn’t a spell or feat, but somehow heroically, any PC can heal himself a few times a day with a "healing surge" that in conjunction with clerics’ healing prayers pretty much makes it difficult for PCs to be nickle & dimed down to low hit points.

Now, why do I like this? Because it reduces the number of stoppages. When you get down to it, the value of games like D&D is the roleplaying experience. By allowing PCs to be more adventurous and daring, rather than sitting around healing up, doesn’t that open up a lot more possibilities? Furthermore, it’s more fun for younger and newer players who may find the consequences for recklessness discouraging. I’m kind of in the middle on this one. I remember when PCs had to be really careful to avoid getting wiped out. Is it good to encourage fighting by powering-up PCs? Or will DMs simply upgrade monsters and everything will return to the way it was before?

One change that seemed an unqualified improvement was a miniature-based combat system, with movement and maneuvering based on 1" squares rather than arbitrary distances. This offers a convenient synergy with Wizards’ burgeoning miniatures biz, but really any miniatures can be used. As someone who has fought countless battles using many different rules systems, I’ve gotta say doing so with miniatures is absolutely preferable to trying to imagine the fight, or measuring things out with rulers.

Another aspect I liked was how magical items were accounted as being part of the adventuring experience. In previous versions of the rules, there was an almost quixotic notion that magical items littered the land, but somehow could not be bought in stores. Even healing potions were available only from treasure boxes. Forget that, the magical items are located in the Player’s Handbook along with regular equipment. Intriguingly, there is a very low price for entry-level items. Each "plus" seems to represent an exponential increase in cost, which put +6 items in the millions but +1 items are only about 300-400gp. As I mentioned previously, Wizards of the Coast was aiming to immerse campaigns more thoroughly in magic. Making low level magical items easily had is a great way to accomplish this.

Things I Don’t Like
I do know that in sourcebooks like this, inevitably some things must be left out. However, I’m left second-guessing what was left and what was kept. To sum up: No bards. No barbarians. No druids or monks. No gnomes or half-orcs. Say what? Of course, these are guaranteed to be a part of some future supplement but to detail two flavors of elves and the unappealing dragonkin race, while no gnomes or half-orcs? Maybe it was an attempt to more clearly differentiate the editions, but I didn’t like it.

While I’m on the race tip, it seems like in 4E, choosing a race seems more for roleplaying reasons than mechanical reasons. For instance, recall the classic 2nd Edition gnome illusionist. At one point, only humans and gnomes could be illusionists. Of course, in 3.5, any character could be any class, regardless of race. However, each race had a favored class that embodied their personality. Gnomes were bards, half-orcs were barbarians, halflings were rogues. When it came to multi-classing these races held advantages over humans and other combinations. No more. A halfling can be a paladin, a human can be a multiclassed rogue/warlord, a dwarf can be a wizard. In a way, doesn’t it take something away from the flavor of these races to give them all (mostly) the same strengths and weaknesses?

The only other complaint I care to air is how very little Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk references as well as Gygaxian spell names (e.g., Leomund’s Tiny Hut) remain. Those references were the soul of D&D and to see them mostly gone reminded me of also-ran fantasy games that lack the Gygax magic. A requestm, Wizards: As 4E evolves, try to put some of that back in.

Truth be told, it’s actually rather difficult to enumerate the rule changes because there are so many of them! And more than just rules, the very paradigms that made up the D&D I played have largely gone bye-bye. Let me put it this way: the differences between 4th Edition and 3.5 are as profound as between, say, 1st Edition AD&D and 3.5. Now the question remains, are these changes for the better?

There’s a lot to like about 4th Edition. It certainly isn’t a token update to sell more books, the changes are profound and thoughtful. Nevertheless, there are those who aren’t so sure they like it. Maybe they’re resistant to change, maybe they know what they like. But the fact remains that a lot of players, reminiscent of XP vs. Vista, have elected not to upgrade. There are even commercial products True20 and Pathfinder which steadfastly utilize flavors of d20, the generic ruleset based on 3.5.

I’m not one of the nay-sayers. 4E is grown-up friendly and kid-friendly. With its easy start that makes newbie PCs tough enough to take care of business, while keeping the best of the old rules, 4E is for me.

Buy the D&D 4E Player’s Handbook or Core Rulebook Set on Amazon

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