Paul and I were talking a while back about how recently it seems like Wizards of the Coast seems to have been focusing its attention on older editions of D&D recently and thinking about what made people so excited about them. The Redbox and Essentials line is one example of this, where they tried to capture both the simplicity/accessibility of D&D and the charm of playing very different types of characters. Another example is the series of articles by Mike Mearls focusing on the history of D&D and discussing what that can tell us about the game today. These seem like good steps to take and have the potential to address some of the objections fans have to 4th edition versus 3.5 or earlier editions of D&D.
What strikes me is that from what I can tell a lot of people are objecting more to what they see as the new philosophy of D&D rather than the rules themselves. And in some ways I see where they are coming from (in other ways I completely disagree).
The thing is, the new rules for 4e are GREAT. They are hands down superior to the rules in other editions. They are more elegant, expand choices in and out of combat, generally more balanced, and basically more fun in every way. They involve less arbitrary charts. They involve more meaningful choices. They are great. I’ll save a meaningful defense of the mechanics of 4e for another article, however :).
Meanwhile, the philosophy behind the new editions or in some cases the perception of the philosophy sometimes leaves room for lingering doubts:
1. A Return to Dungeon Crawls: Is it just me, or is 4e more about dungeon crawls and less about more free-form encounters in the wilderness or in cities, which seemed more common in 3.5? Official adventures, for example, seem to consist almost entirely of long dungeon crawls. And 4e rules, with their structure of encouraging multiple encounters in a day, definitely seem to work very well for a dungeon crawl.
The thing is, this needn’t really be the case. There’s nothing in 4e rules forcing PCs to muck about in dungeons, and it is not too difficult to create situations where multiple fights crop up naturally over the course of a day. Or just one or two SUPER HARD fights. So this is a situation where the general tone of 4e seems to imply that players should be fighting wave after wave of monsters in a dungeon, which could turn off some more die-hard roleplayers, when in reality, the rules support any style of play in this area.
2. More Dice Rolling: There is an impression in some old school rpg circles that more rules means more dice rolling to resolve conflicts or solve puzzles, even outside of combat. For example, in early editions of D&D there were fewer rules for resolving social encounters. Now PCs have diplomacy, bluff, and insight. There’s also the skill challenge system for resolving many different sorts of non-combat encounters.
These rules seem to be viewed as a hindrance to roleplaying, getting in the way of what should be a fun social encounter or a gritty encounter with a trap. I suppose they could be if you NEVER used them as a DM, since there is some expectation that a PC with a high Diplomacy will get to use it from time to time.
However, I view all these rules as just another tool in my toolbox as a DM. For example, if I am a hurry to continue with the story and one of the players wants to recruit some townspeople to join them in their next mission, I will let them make a quick Diplomacy check to convince them to come along. I often find this preferable to a 30 minutes roleplaying encounter that will bore half the adventuring group, and the player is happy that they get to show off their high Diplomacy.
At other times, however, I’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour in a fun social encounter with few if any dice rolls if everyone (including me) seems to be enjoying themselves. Similarly, I’ve come across and run my fair share of straight up puzzles in D&D, where player ingenuity trumps any roll their character might take. You could easily run a whole campaign this way. It’s a simple matter of taste that only tangentially relates to the actual rules.
3. PC are Superheroes: There’s a strange perception in D&D 4e that PCs are super heroes starting at level 1. My own personal pile of dead first level PCs points to evidence to the contrary. And seriously, if less than a dozen low level goblins poses a serious threat to your 1st level adventuring party, then maybe you want to rethink your claims.
Yes, 1st level PCs have a ton more hit points than in previous editions, and some nifty powers to boot. But that’s because previous editions were crazy! You became nearly TWICE at powerful when you hit level 2! Fighters had pretty much nothing to do but swing their sword once a round (or more times a round as they got higher level!). I guess there is a certain charm to literally being one hit away from death, but it gets trying fast. I just can’t get THAT excited about playing a 1HP wizard, where every combat means an almost certain chance of death.
Sure, if you throw a few EL +0 encounters at a 1st level party they are going to look like gods, but throw a few gnolls in the mix and suddenly things look pretty gritty again, with the PCs pulling out all the stops to survive, including creative use of their environment. And hey, if you really want to turn up the heat at any level, let the PCs stumble into an encounter level way over their heads and see how they do; they may surprise you and turn the tide to their advantage, but more likely it will become a fun exercise in beating a tactical retreat.
4. Adventures are all about Combat: There seems to be a perception in 4e that adventures are all about combat. Again, this seems partly due to many of the published official adventures, which seem to be primarily slogs through dungeons. To be fair, I’ve heard most of this from word of mouth and have only personally looked through a handful of 4e adventures. It does seem that more than anything else there is a lot of nostalgia for adventures from older editions like Ravenloft and Tomb of Horrors, which went beyond a bunch of linear combat encounters and gave players a lot of opportunities to develop a story and explore their surroundings. So sure, I think there is something that Wizards can take away from that.
However, I think most people who have played in 4e campaigns realize that there is just as much roleplaying and out of combat encounters as in previous editions. The ONLY impediment, really, is that the combat rules are so good, it’s a shame to go too long without indulging in a good fight.
With that said, the skill challenge system (a useful tool in the toolbox!) can allow running cinematic non-combat encounters that have the same sense of danger and high stakes as a combat usually would have. Furthermore, a good skill challenge invites the players to craft their own narratives by fleshing out details in the scene with creative skill use and descriptions.
5. Points of Light: Other aspects of the D&D 4e philosophy I go back and forth on, but the idea of the D&D world as a few bastions of civilization and order amidst a darkness of wilderness and danger really grabs me! I love it, and I love that most of the official D&D fluff builds on that viewpoint. Again, there’s nothing stopping someone from using all the material from a 2nd edition campaign setting, but why would you want to? It’s awesome to be a group of heroes who are one of the few people keeping small pinpricks of civilization from collapsing, even if you do so in pursuit of your own selfish and petty goals!
Conclusion: Really, this all boils down to the point that 4e has provided more tools and better tools for running games, but at the end of the day it’s provided the flexibility (or just stepped out of the way) to allow players and the DM to pick and choose the ones they want to utilize at a given time. As someone who blends seamlessly (or semiseemlessly) from running a fun involved tactical encounter one minute, to a freeform social encounter the next, and finishing everything off with a bizarre puzzle that is solved as much by player skill as cruel fate, I appreciate the tools that D&D 4e has given me.
Addendum: I wrote this article several weeks ago. Since then I have had the pleasure of playing in a couple sessions of odnd that Paul ran as part of some future articles we may be posting. He DM’d, and I ran all the heroes. He tried to run it completely by the book using a sample dungeon that was provided and rules for randomly determining if a room had treasure or monsters in it.
It was fun, very interesting, and VERY weird. It definitely had a different feel from almost any previous edition of D&D I’ve played in (I’ve done a small amount of 1E and quite a bit of 2, 3, 3.5 and 4th edition), mainly because I didn’t get the feel at any point that the DM truly cared whether I lived or died. It was like exploring an abandoned dungeon with no real sense of purpose, save to survive and gather treasure.
It would be interesting to replicate that experience in 4e. This would involve challenging a lot of base assumptions that have build up over the years, such as the idea that the DM is crafting a narrative, that fights are challenging but balanced, and that players aren’t expected to die fairly regularly. The DMG has some stuff for creating a random dungeon that I might borrow from, but I think I may end up creating my own system, perhaps with help from the essentials random treasure rules, so watch out for that in a future article!