When Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was announced in 2007, the reaction was somewhat mixed. Much of the community had found 3rd Edition to be a little cumbersome, though less so than the THAC0 days of AD&D. While my memories of lunchtime dungeon crawls in junior high are no less fond these days, albeit somewhat faded due to the passage of time, simplification has never struck me as a bad idea. Fewer tables that need to be consulted and less math required to engineer the result of an action means faster, more immersive gameplay. However, the end result of 4th Edition created an even more mixed reaction than its announcement. A lot of cries went up from players of previous editions, many of them lamentations that the game to which they had devoted so much time and attention had now been destroyed thanks to generalization and appealing to the lowest common denominator. D&D, in their minds, had become the Madden of role-playing games, with new books coming out every so often to keep the Wizards of the Coast money machine churning instead of doing anything innovative or keeping with the traditions of the previous iterations of the game.
But just because someone’s loud doesn’t mean they’re right.
Similar criticism has been levelled against the 2009 film Star Trek. While in terms of storytelling and effects it was outshone by District 9, released in the same summer, Star Trek was not quite as dumb as some claim. It didn’t have the true dramatic punch as some of the better series episode – TNG’s “Tapestry” and DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight” spring to mind – but neither was it a completely meatheaded beer-swilling interpretation of the story. Doing something different with an established franchise is not always the worst thing that could happen to it, and just because someone changed it doesn’t automatically mean it sucks. Dungeons & Dragons is no exception. Rather than simply addressing the various arguments against 4th Edition, which might be seen as a bitter & opinionated assault (on the Internet? GASP!), I’d like to discuss the various merits & drawbacks of each extant version of D&D, including the indy child of 3.5 – Pathfinder.
D&D 3.5 – “We fixed it. Kinda.”
3rd Edition, as I’ve mentioned, had its share of growing pains. The first iteration of the d20 system could be a little confusing, and the classes were anything but balanced. With sorcerers & wizards vying for the position on the party as the finger-wiggler, fighters & barbarians arm wrestling and rogues picking locks, nobody played bards. In higher-level encounters, provided the cleric or magic-user in the party has looked up all the rules, errata & Ask the Sage articles for a spell of doom, the fighter’s job basically becomes that of a big, clunky distraction – and people say 4th Edition plays like an MMO. The distribution of skill points and limitations on class skills also tended to have the fighter wondering where the bad guy was up until the point said bad guy was stabbing them in the kidneys.
3.5 addressed some of these issues, and the amount of prestige classes available let players aim their characters in a certain direction that would help to keep them interested. For all its faults, 3.5 is a relatively solid system, geared towards the heroic endeavors of high fantasy. If you’re okay with the problems I’ve pointed out, and can get your head around the frankly embarrassing amount of rules involved or have a DM who’s fine with winging it through 90% of a campaign, there’s nothing wrong with playing 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons.
Pathfinder: D&D 3.75
Before I talk about 4th Edition, I want to touch on Pathfinder. While I have yet to play in a campaign myself (a friend has one in the works), a cursory glance at the SRD indicates that Pathfinder is a well-organized branch of the 3.5 tree, with classes more balanced, rules that make more sense and slightly less laborious class progression. Taking a feat every other level instead of every 3rd means your character is going to be more versatile more quickly. I’ll talk more about Pathfinder when I’ve had a chance to really play it, but it seems promising on the outset.
D&D 4th Edition: “It’s not World of Dungeons & Dragons. Honest.”
Let me get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, all of the classes have powers that define what they can do in combat, divided between at-will, encounter and daily use – “cooldowns” in the lexicon of people familiar with MMOs. And yes, the classes are divided among four main categories: Leader, Defender, Striker & Controller. If at this point you think 4th edition is turning D&D into an MMO on your tabletop, go ahead and start writing your hate mail now.
Go on. I’ll wait.
All done with the flaming? Fantastic. Now here’s why you’re wrong.
Two big problems with previous editions of D&D were in the laborious write-ups for the pages and pages of spells available to spell-casters, and the power gap that grew between spell-casters and melee classes as character levels rose. In 4th edition, no matter what class you’ve chosen, there’s something you can do every turn to help the party that goes beyond whacking away at a monster with a stick. And you have a few options to choose from at 1st level. A party of starting characters in D&D can take on an entire dungeon of opponents without having to worry too much about a TPK, whereas in 3.5 a wizard has more than a couple reasons to fear the wrath of a couple stray kittens.
The classes in 4th are balanced, if somewhat homogenized. Within the categories, there are a few things that set one class apart from another, but in the broad strokes, Defenders act as tanks, Leaders benefit the party, Controllers penalize the opponents and Strikers deal slightly more damage than the other types. I can hear more people raging at the idea of MMO mentalities creeping into their D&D, but in my experience, it’s a “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” situation. Some of these changes might have been inspired by the likes of EverQuest or World of Warcraft, but if the changes are for the better, does it really matter where they came from? No party member is dead weight, combat runs more smoothly and with a faster pace, non-combat encounters are geared to be every bit as important and rewarding as combat and the system is every bit as flexible as previous iterations, allowing a crafty DM to create their own world and wing it if they so desire. It’s got something for everybody, isn’t shrouded in obfuscatory rules and is very easy for new players to pick up & play. Some people might see that as a betrayal of the old ways of Dungeons & Dragons, but in my humble opinion they’re provably wrong.
I can only say so much to try and convince people that the arguments against why 4th edition is a step in the right direction are unfounded and composed mostly of the kind of neophobia that keeps people from enjoying the new Star Trek film or entertaining the idea of socialized health care. Some people have the courage to try something new and then admit they prefer things the way they were, and that’s fine. At least you gave it a chance. If you haven’t tried 4th Edition yet, you really should. You can grab quick-start rules, pre-gen characters and an introductory adventure, all for free. What have you got to lose, other than some misinformed opinions and another source of high blood pressure?