Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, my column to introduce the world of modern roleplaying games to you. On this outing, I am going to tell you about the 800 pound Gorilla of roleplaying games–Dungeons and Dragons. In the specific, the latest “4th Edition”.
If you, gentle reader, have played any roleplaying game, I would lay odds that it was probably a version of Dungeons and Dragons. From its origins in the 1970’s as a fantasy adjunct to a wargame, and through the 1980’s, Dungeons and Dragons became the most recognized roleplaying game on the market. You may even remember the short lived cartoon series from the 80’s as well. You may have tried to forget the movie in the 1990’s. I suspect Jeremy Irons is still trying to.
To understand 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in context, let me begin with a little more history…
Through multiple editions, both Basic and Advanced, Dungeons and Dragons evolved and grew into and through the 90’s. This period of growth and experimentation led to a lot of unusual settings and ideas coming to the game.
Spelljammer, for instance, was Dungeons and Dragons In Space. Ravenloft brought the tropes and tools of Horror to Dungeons and Dragons. Planescape provided a canvas of infinite worlds, where philosophy was potentially as powerful a weapon as any sword or spell. One of the supplements for “basic” Dungeons and Dragons allowed the characters to ascend to godhood and become embroiled into a greater world of mythic conflicts and struggle.
And then, in 2000, the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out. The “basic” and “advanced” lines were merged into one game. More important than the numerous rule changes, however, was the concept of the Open Gaming License. Since its earliest days, the companies that owned Dungeons and Dragons, from TSR to Wizards of the Coast, actively discouraged the use of third-party products. I remember an editorial in an old issue of Dragon magazine cautioning players not to use products that were “compatible with Dungeons and Dragons” but instead to rely on those which carried TSR’s approval and were “approved for use with Dungeons and Dragons“.
All this changed with third edition, and the Open Gaming License. With the OGL, the basic mechanics of the D20 system, as the core mechanic of Dungeons and Dragons was now called, were open to anyone who wanted to create supplements and even new games entirely. This led to a culmination of creativity, as numerous roleplaying companies started producing supplements and entire games based on this system. These games varied widely in their diversity. For instance, Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms, created a steampunk infused fantasy world. Game designer Monte Cook came up with Arcana Unearthed, a fantasy world without the standard races of elves, dwarves and orcs, but instead featured humans living alongside giants, lion men, and dragon-descended races. Wizards of the Coast themselves came up with a Star Wars based roleplaying game.
By 2008, though, while there was great diversity in OGL supplements, Dungeons and Dragons itself had become overloaded with books and supplements of its own. For many players, part of the game itself was planning out a character’s evolution before a single dungeon was entered, plotting the best future for a character with all of the options provided in the plethora of rulebooks. Thus, like James Bond, Batman and Doctor Who, Wizards of the Coast decided for their 4th Edition, that an entire reboot was in order.
That reboot of Dungeons and Dragons was and remains controversial for many reasons. The changes to their Open Gaming License, making it far more restrictive and limited than the one for the D20 system, has made development of supplements for the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons far less common and widespread than under 3rd Edition. Many of the established game worlds of Dungeons and Dragons were radically altered, fundamentally changing the very landscape of the major adventuring worlds like the Forgotten Realms. However, it is the game mechanics and game philosophy that truly make 4th Edition a contentious reboot for the players.
Character classes like Fighters and Clerics are still there. There are still dungeons and there are still dragons. The same stats from the old days, Strength, Intelligence, Charisma, Constitution, Wisdom, and Dexterity are all there. There are dwarves and elves (although one branch of them are now called Eladrin).
On the other hand, there are new classes, like the Warlock, and the Warlord, and all of these classes are classified according to their “role”: Leader, Defender, Striker, and Controller. These roles are reminiscent of similar classifications in online games like World of Warcraft. There are new races too, most notably the humanoid dragons, Dragonborn.
Under earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons, there were concessions to a consistent and simulated reality. Descriptions of spells listed distances and areas in real world units, mages were limited in their spell use in a way that hearkens back to the novels of Jack Vance. For three editions, despite some rule changes, some things hearkening back to the early days of D&D were kept in place. A player from 1980 who time traveled to 2008 could pick up 3rd Edition D&D and with minimal effort, get to playing without too many of his assumptions about the game needing to be rethought.
4th Edition, however, is a different beast entirely. While previous editions of the game encouraged the use of maps and miniatures for the game, the game was certainly playable without them. Personally, I ran games as a Dungeon Master successfully without them for years. With 4th Edition, however, maps and miniatures have become mandatory. That lightning bolt that in earlier editions said went 60 feet? In 4th Edition, the distance is given in a generic map measurement called “squares”. Spell and abilities are all described in this way as well. Heck, your Eladrin rogue moves “6 squares” a round! You need maps and miniatures to effectively play the game as written.
Further making the world of Dungeons and Dragons less of a fantasy world and more of a board wargame with fantasy units is the nature of attacks and abilities. Those of you who played earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons probably remember that fighters did the heavy fighting, clerics healed, rogues backstabbed, and mages had a few spells–but were easy for the enemy to kill once they used up their magic missile or web spell. In the old cartoon, Presto was never stupid enough to let Venger’s minions get close to him if he could help it.
4th Edition changes this completely. Characters are far less fragile in this system than in previous ones, especially mages. It’s difficult to kill a character in 4th Edition, in what has to be a deliberate design decision. However, more striking is the change to how characters fight. Every character, be it a fighter or a mage, has a range of abilities that can be used every turn. They also have more potent ones that can be used exactly once during a fight, and everyone has an ability that can used once during a day. This means that there are spells that mages have that they can use every single round.
Even clerics, who aside from dealing with undead were mainly healing and support in earlier editions, now get cinematic attacks and spells of their own. Fighters special attacks are not called spells, but being cinematic-like attacks and abilities, they sure act like them. Some of the stranger powers of some character types, like Controllers, instead of dealing damage, actually move and control enemy units on the map, and sometimes they can even move other player characters as well, and give them the ability to attack an opponent.
Even more telling is that these powers are all roughly equal in ability. If the Ranger’s arrow strike ability does about the same damage and hits about as equally as my Cleric’s holy bolt, then what is the real difference in playing the two?
And to me, and to logic, the idea that ability can be used just once during a fight, but can be used again for the next fight, even if that next fight is 5 minutes later or a half day later, is just unbalanced and unrealistic. Even more telling, the game is designed to have characters find if not outright buy the magical items they want, as opposed to what the GM has them discover. Magic items, designed to be relatively rare and precious in earlier editions of the game, are in the Player’s Handbook with the costs.
SF Signal member and Functional Nerd Patrick Hester once made a point that many modern fantasy writers who have played Dungeons and Dragons show it in their writing in terms of realistic, restrained and balanced magic and magical items. In 4th Edition, the balance and restraint he remembers is gone, all in the name of making a dynamic tabletop game experience. To me, all this makes the figurine of my Dragonborn cleric less of a character of my own, in a world the GM and I are building together, and more of a piece on a board game that I happen to be controlling.
And that is my point. 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is, really, and paradoxically, now more of a tabletop tactical wargame than any of its earlier incarnations. Your character, your fellow party members are the good units, and the enemy creatures are the enemy units. The latest innovation to 4th Edition is another board game like concept called “Fortune Cards”. As the Wizards of the Coast website describes them: “These cards give characters fun, temporary benefits that feel different from the benefits gained from powers and feats, without adding undue complexity to the D&D game.” When my characters in my D&D campaign 20 years ago went up against a Blue Dragon in the desert, they neither expected nor would have wanted to have a deck of Fortune cards at hand before the combat. And I ran that combat without a map.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be lots of fun to play 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. You probably can find an Essentials game running in your friendly local game store running this week, if you are now curious to play. But, to me anyway, 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons feels and is seemingly designed to be a lot less like roleplaying than earlier editions of the game ever did. It feels like a beer and pretzels fantasy wargame. It takes a lot of work for a Game Master to bring a roleplaying experience to the game, when the game itself is so tilted toward being a tactical battle game. I know of GMs who have managed it, but know just as many or more who run 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons as a way to get friends together to go pound some Orcs, nothing more.
And now you know why 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is considered to be controversial and divisive, and many older D&D players do not play the latest edition.
There are companies still producing items under the OGL, but the mantle, as it were, of the D20 system in a Dungeons and Dragons like atmosphere has been taken up by a different company entirely. Next time, we’ll take a look at the game that tries to continue the traditions of the D20 system.