This is my review of the 4th Edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons. Basically I like them, although I think they have been marketed at a mature audience and I would not recommend them for anyone younger than 15, and with parental guidance for any older teenager.
I was surprised this weekend when I managed to get an hour or two free from the family to browse my FLGS and found that they had just got their first delivery of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (D&D 4e). Another pleasant surprise was the price, AU$39.95 each for the Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual (MM). After perusing the books for 10 minutes or so I was sure that whilst interesting, this might not be the future for my gaming group, so I only plunked down the cash for the PHB and DMG, as the MM could come later if I actually DMed anything.
Dungeons & Dragons was one of the first pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs) that experienced a huge growth in the 1970's and 1980's before first collectible card games (CCGs), and then massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) ate into their customer base, especially the important new players (who tend to spend a lot on new rule books).
Here are the major differences I've noticed in my first few reads:
- Core Classes: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, Wizard.
- Core Races: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Hafling, Half-Elf, Human, Tiefling.
- Alignments: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil.
- All classes are as complex as each other now. Cleric/Wizard have simplified a lot, the rest have become more complex, especially Fighter.
- Skills have been greatly simplified and streamlined, but still offer interesting abilities.
- Healing is still important, but more of it is available via 'natural' means (resting, skill-checks) than ever before. Healing powers are more spread about the classes too.
- Lots of development choices, whilst all random elements in character development have been removed (no rolling for abilities, hit points or starting gold). This makes it possible for people to create characters without a DM present.
- There are no conversion rules, or references to old versions of the game, except for a brief History of D&D sidebar at the start of the PHB.
There are some elements that are worrying as core rules for a game that has traditionally been pitched at pre-teens on up:
- Tieflings are more definitely infernal than before, with the devil-inspired characteristics very plainly displayed in the artwork (horns and thick tails) and flavour text that suggests a real struggle to overcome their darker natures.
- The artwork in general is much darker than ever before, with violence and horror graphically depicted (PHB: p.122, massive slice through lizardman's side; p.297, blood running from Regdar's nose; DMG: p.11 bruised and bloody heroes; p.130-131 a far too realistic horror piece).
- The Warlock class is a dark parody of real-life witchcraft and plays up the darker emotional aspects of the role and the 'selling your soul' element. For example Hellish Rebuke says that "You point your finger and your foe is scoured in hellish flames stoked by your own anger and pain." If you take the Feytouched paragon path then you have been "driven slightly mad" and "relish the madness and can control it, but those you unleash it upon can do nothing but crumble in the wake of the unparalleled majesty of the Feywild." If you take the Life-Stealer paragon path then "Your pact with infernal powers has given you the ability to steal and utilize the life energy of your enemies. This life energy provides you with a new avenue to power, and you hunger for it as a vampire craves blood." Lovely.
As a result I would not recommend these rules for anyone younger than 15, and parental guidance even then, given the interest in the occult that this could easily foster. This is a shame as the artwork could easily have been toned down, and the Tiefling/Warlock rules left out for a darker add-on supplement. In particular it clashes with the (rather glib) advice that if "you choose an alignment for your character you should pick either good or lawful good."
I suspect the decision has been made (at some level) to go after an older age group, as the average online gamer is in their 30's and can afford the subscription model that D&D 4e seems to be heading towards. However, I can't help wondering whether this shoots themselves in the foot as many parents I know would be even less likely now to invest in D&D 4e for their kids. I certainly would now steer my children, nephews and nieces towards other softer games for their first pen and paper roleplaying experience.
Now, some people might reflexively think I am overreacting, however please bear in mind that I would not recommend many online RPGs to younger players for similar reasons. I recognise that my own exploration of RPGs started with the very benign Basic D&D rules, and it was only later that I was exposed to ideas that required more mature filtering than I had as a young teenager. Giving a young teenager D&D 4e would be exposing them to occult ideas, horror elements and graphic violence - there are undoubtedly parents who do not have a problem with this, but personally I'd like to save my kids the nightmares and unnecessary perversity of the thoughts behind ideas such as selling one's soul for power. If I was going to do it, then I would make sure I guided them through it in order to help them place these ideas properly in their place.
So, perhaps I am unusual, but it does make me wonder if this sort of marketing blunder indicates that someone at Hasbro (owners of Wizards of the Coast, publishers of D&D 4e) has taken their eye off the brand?
For mature gamers, who have perhaps been around the block more than once with White Wolf's World of Darkness products (Vampire, Werewolf, etc) there is little in these rules that you will not have seen before, and the main issues you would have are with the decision to change the core classes and races, yet again. In particular the admission of Dragonborn and Eladrin races seem spurious, given how many other races have been left out.
I've heard people openly criticise this edition as going after the MMORPG crowd, and whilst a sell-out could be on the cards, to me this looks more like a genuine attempt to re-visit the core rules and bring some much needed balance back into the game - albeit by removing many of the 'realistic' rules that have been around since D&D's early wargaming days. Personally I look forward to sitting down with the boys, opening a few beers, swapping stories about the kids and then seeing just what we can do with a few heroes of old.