Thursday, 3 July 2008

Literary Section IX - D&D 4th Edition

This post has been a bit long in coming but hey, one must take into account their available time, in order to write decently and effectively. Now then... As, pretty much anyone involved with Role-Playing Games knows that the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has hit the shelves, I will not dwell too much on that. Frankly, I was expecting that they would launch it in October or November and I was caught somewhat off-guard. Regardless: In late May / early June, Darkside_Blues informed me that a local gaming shop would playtest the new edition and since it was quite near where I live, I told him I would join him.

D&D 4th Edition - Player's Handbook.

As an odd fun factoid, I would like to mention that Darkside_Blues was the one who first introduced me to RPG, way back in 1996: as a wet-behind-the-ears and rather green 13-year-old kid, I first tried to cross the threshold of my school's RPG club (during the School Fair) and found some rather weird-looking people (to my young eyes, remember) poring over a miniature battlefield, filled with metallic, painted models of fantasy creatures I had often encountered in my Hero Quest days. However, they were not playing Hero Quest or Dragon Game System and they were waaay too old (I thought) and I just turned tail and ran. A year (to the day) later, I crossed the threshold again and this time, the people looked a bit younger and one of them, caught your eye immediately: he was large, with even larger, bushy hair and yelling at the top of his lungs, about some (at the time) incomprehensible things. That was Darkside_Blues (Celroth, "Running Horse" back in the day) and he was DMing the newbies. There did I create my first ever, 1st-Level Wizard, who managed to survive his first battle with the party, against a couple of wolves, by using Light and Magic Missile. once each. It was the first encounter from The Sword of the Dales, as I learned much later.

AD&D 2nd Edition - The Sword of the Dales.

Fast-forward to 12 years later, when I find myself among the old geezers of RPG, who still miss the AD&D 2nd Edition: despite a slight mess-up with the registrations, on the part of Darkside_Blues (yes, yes I have forgiven you but I take every opportunity to take a jab at you, heh), I still ended up at the gaming store on the day of the playtesting, with the intention of participating as a player. As it so often happens with the best-laid plans of mice and men, I ended up DMing... again!

D&D 4th Edition - Dungeon Master's Guide.

So, here we have reached the reason for this post: my impression from playing the new edition for the first time. Lurking and / or talking in forums, I most often came across a number of more or less funny aphorisms, some of which have their fair share of reasoning. To name a few: "there are no consecutive editions of D&D, only degrees of WoW", "right, pen & paper Dungeon Siege", "what does this remind me of... aah! Hero Quest!" and so on and so forth. To tell you the truth, they are not entirely wrong, if a bit over the top. First things first: the only thing D&D 4th Edition shares with its predecessors, is the name - nearly everything else has changed. In my opinion, it is a completely different game. For instance, you can forget about the concept "Fighter with Long Sword and Short Sword Specialization" or the Wizard poring over a tome of a bazillion spells, visitign vast and endless libraries with tomes of arcane catalogs" and so on and so forth. In this game, everything takes the form of "Powers". There has been a unification of the class system, whereby all characters gain powers or have the option of changing powers at set levelsand from set lists for each class. Multiclassing? Gone with the wind as , if you wish to have a Fighter with Priestly Powers, you just play a Warlord. If you opt more for one of the oldest combos in the history of gaming, Fighter / Mage (the Elf in Hero Quest, much coveted), you just play a Warlock or Sword Mage. Alternatively, if the combo you wish to play does not exist, there is the option of purchasing Powers from different Class Lists, in order to end up with the desirable customization. Most people who read this system, especially long-time World of Warcraft fans, immediately recognized and tagged the game as a pen & paper version of WoW. As for me, while I cannot disagree that there are elements very suggestive of such similarities, I think the specific aphorism is a bit shallow and exaggerated.

Races and Classes of the 4th Edition D&D.

For instance, reading the 4th Edition Player's Handbook, I was left with the impression that the writers turned to the Far East for inspiration, concerning both the rules and setting. For one, the book elaborates on the rules and the concept, at the same time setting the mood of an Age where the previous, mighty Empire of Humans has fallen and now the world is a dangerous, dark and uncertain place. Secondly, they have made some radical changes on the standard D&D races, which are pretty indicative of their source material: they have taken out Gnomes, something which saddens me because, contrary to popular belief, no, they are not "smaller Dwarves". On the other hands, they have added Eladrin, Dragonborn and Tieflings into the mix. Now, the Eladrin, along with the description of "the last great Human Empire", are a dead giveaway of one source material: the Record of the Lodoss War. Lodoss was a cursed island setting, created by Ryo Mizuno, initially within the boundaries of the Japanese RPG, Sword World and the Campaign Setting of Forceria. In it, the story of the manga begins some centuries after the fall of Kastoll, the Human Empire of great Warrior-Wizards.

Sword World RPG - Lodoss Island
Supplement (Japanese).

On the other hand, the Elves are divided into two distinct categories: Wood Elves and High Elves. The following, is an excerpt from the new Player Handbook's entry on Eladrin: "Graceful warriors and wizards at home in the eldritch twilight of the Feywild". Now, this is a description of the High Elves of the Forest of No Return, if I ever saw one. Further, their physical description could well have been Deedlit's and Estas's portraits form the Lodoss setting. On the other hand, Elves are described as "quick, wary archers who freely roam the forests and wilds", which in Tolkien-speak or older D&D editions, would pretty much translate into "Wood Elves". However, these are the typical (not High) Elves of Lodoss. Furthermore, the addition of Tieflings and Dragonborn, as well the use of the word "Eladrin" for what is, essentially, a different race than in any other edition, points to drawing source material from Planescape (where Eladrin and Tieflings first appeared) as well as Dragonlance (the Dragonborn are a "cousins" of the Draconians of Dragonlance, conceptually speaking, hands down).

Deedlit, a High Elf from Record of the
Lodoss War...

...and her cousins! (Eladrin
from the 4th Edition D&D).

This is what an original Firre
Eladrin looked like in the 2nd
Edition AD&D Setting, Planescape
(by Tony DiTerlizzi).

Rules-wise, the whole concept of everything being "Powers", instead of Spells, Maneuvers, Proficiencies, styles or what-have-you, points directly at the BESM 2nd Edition, by the Guardians of Order. The setting used a unified D6 system (much like the whole D20 affair) and the characters were built over time, by buying new powers, better versions of the old powers or upgrading the existing ones. So, in all these respects, I cannot say that the new edition is scrap material, in an off manner.

Manual of the Planes, a curious staple
of almost every edition of the game,
from 1st through 4th, with the exception
of 2.2, which had the Planescape Setting.

However, there are a few elements that bother me... a lot! For one, I do not see why anyone would have to include "party roles" in the whole class system. In effect, the game gives you a set strategic platform and educates you on how you may substitute one class for the other in order to maintain "party balance". Now, in older versions of the game, it was obvious that it helped having a Fighter, a Rogue and a Priest, to take care of Damage, Traps and Healing / Magic respectively. There were other views and versions of this mix but nowhere did you receive "party building instructions". THIS is WoW or perhaps, Throne of Blood material and yes, it takes something out of the imagination and the improvisation of completely impromptu (and yes, unbalanced) parties. Secondly and this I find inexcusable, all movement and distance is given in "squares". I already find it annoying enough that you now HAVE to use tiles and miniatures (which the company kindly sells to you), but giving movement rates outside of combat in squares??? That is totally unacceptable and insults the brain capacity of anyone having finished grade school.

Figure Starter Pack.

Of the rules, I have little else to say and it's mainly details that pertain to personal preferences and such. Having played the game with (rather) experienced players, two of whom have played the 2nd Edition extensively and at least one of whom had touched the 1st (that would be Darkside_Blues), my conclusions are these: if you want to make the 4th Edition into a real Role-Playing experience, it is entirely up to you and your players to use the tools provided as you see fit. Secondly, when the rules have been thoroughly read and understood, combat is rather simple and quick business, with built-in descriptions that can be used to make the game more impressive and descriptive. Thirdly, the game has a heavy marketing character, trying to launch many products simultaneously (books, figures, software) and that has taken a toll on the realism one could otherwise include (e.g. the "squares" business). Sadly, I believe that anyone who begins Role-Playing with this edition for the first time, will only reach the limits of a good, story-involved MMORPG player, unless the DM has a solid background from the older editions. However, for older players, this game could be an opportunity to play something completely different and if they are anime / manga aficionados, it is the ideal system for such settings.

Parn and Deedlit from Record of
the Lodoss War.

Other than that, the books are extremely well written, the material in a proper, functional order and the artists for the interior designs carefully chosen, very much unlike Editions 3 and 3.5.

Bottomline: this is NOT D&D but, with proper attitude and guidance could still be a good fantasy game.

Moradin guide us,


P.S. As it has become obvious that this blog alone cannot accommodate ALL of the events taking place around Japanese culture (I already owe you X tribute Revisited and now, the night with Unshin from the day before yesterday), we will be opening a new blogspace very, very soon, which will be entirely dedicated to J-culture. The link and url will be posted as soon as we are ready to begin. Thanks to all of you who have become part of our regular readership and we hope that you will continue to support us as we continue to entertain you!

1 comment:

Darkside_blues said...


(Disembowels and decapitates himself)