Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hindsight/Nostalgia Review: 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons

I've tried to write this review three or four times now, but always find that I've quit and started over within a few minutes.  But that's nothing normal, I've found that the things that have impacted me the most I've had a lot of trouble writing about, which is more than a little ironic. Most things that truly impacted me I bear deep within in a silence that only occasionally gets lifted.  So it is with 4th edition. It's a game that I loved, hated, scorned, and ultimately can't help but respect. I suppose I better actually start a review, before I get too whiny. I know it's too late, but I can pretend, right?

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is the most unique edition of the game so far, and I mean that in the best way possible. The designers took a lot of the conventions of the game that hadn't been codified and did so. They made up three distinctions of ability use: at-will, encounter, and daily. It's a really interesting system that I found really helped me sort out decisions on the fly. If I just needed to throw something at the enemy that wasn't crucial but was more of filler, I'd select an At-Will. If the situation was more serious I usually picked an Encounter, and if it got really serious I'd come swinging out the gates with a Daily power. Unlike most people the obvious system didn't bother me at all. It made sense that the rules were a tad bit artificial. I mean, we're making up an artificial world, right?

But I like Burning Wheel, what do I know?

Anyway, so each character got a variety of these powers which, when combined with all your class features and feats, made you a unique character. The character would always function with at least base-line capacity, which made it easy to use the game as an introduction point to other beginners, since they really didn't have to worry about being hosed. It worked out pretty well.

The best part was the DMing section. The book taught you how to make an actually balanced encounter, and that was amazing! For the first time in DnD history they said "this is a fair fight". And they were spot on, for the most part. There were a few hiccups, like solos, but the most wonderful thing I found about 4th was how stinking easy it was to modify. The fact that they had a good baseline hidden in there made modifications so simple I could do it on the fly. While it took a little while, I got to the point with the system where I could make up entire fights in seconds, throwing out terrain and monsters with gleeful abandon, using the rules as a guide for my insanity and sado-masochism. And it was fun!

The game isn't perfect, however. Gah, not by a long shot. The first problem is ironically enough it's greatest advantage: the math. It wasn't right in certain spots, and that made things very tricky. The other problem was the half-level boost, which literally made no sense. It's non-sensical inflation at it's best since the American economy. Skill challenges were another problem: they just never truly worked. It wasn't that they were too artificial (again, Burning Wheel does artificial SO well it becomes organic) but that they were the railroad's wet-dream come true. Which was too bad, really. They were an interesting mechanic.  The last problem, of course, was monster damage and solo monsters. These were just... wrong... almost all the way through. I mean, the fact that you could modify this stuff so easily was amazing, because all it takes is the Terror Rule (Marty's idea: all solos start with a +5 to all attacks, damage, and defenses. The bonus decreases by 1 per round) and all of a sudden solos are BAMF'ers who don't take crap from nobody, but the fact that they never thought to implement this stuff is a bit mind-boggling, and that it took them 5 years to get it right.

Oh, I forgot about the last problem: the game was 20 levels too large. The PCs got so powerful that 11-20th levels are progressively easier until you hit epic tier, at which point you own everything and anything that could possibly be thrown at you. So really, you were paying 120 bucks for a game that didn't really work for the last 2/3's!  That's a lot of worts to have in a game.

Even with all these worts, I find I still love 4th quite a bit, enough to give almost all my books to little sister Munchkin, who is extremely excited to go find players to torture. I kept a few of the books for myself, however, and I still go through them from time to time. The nostalgia's pretty strong with this game. I mean, this is the game I actually cut my teeth on, and that I first learned what I truly liked and didn't like about gaming. That's pretty high praise for a game. 4th deserves it.