Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Small Defense of 4th Edition D&D...in Theory

I haven't seen a copy of the 4th Edition rules. I only know what I've read in the various hints on EnWorld and on the Wizards site about what 4th Edition will look like. But there is one thing I know, and it is that I am sick of hearing on various boards that 4th Edition is a game made for children or those of a childish mentality. I am bored with those who write, "this is D&D for 10 year-olds" or "if I was 10 I'd like this version."

Why? I'll give you one guess.

I started playing D&D when I was 10, thanks to the first Red Box Basic set (the red box with Erol Otis art), and haven't turned back from playing the game in each subsequent edition for 25 years.

Has anyone really gone back after years of playing later editions and read the 1st edition rulebooks? I'm talking the AD&D rulebooks here. Go ahead, read the combat section regarding initiative...all of it. How many attacks per round does a Magic User with a dagger get against a Fighter with a two-handed sword? Nope, not one. You'd better check out that chapter in the DMG again.

Worse yet, try reading the white box with the three booklets? Those are almost unplayable. In fact, if I hadn't played so much Warhammer Fantasy Battle over the past few decades, I wouldn't even be able to make heads or tails of this game. At least I wouldn't if I was using the core combat mechanic based on the Chainmail miniatures rulebook. I've read Chainmail several times, and it is only my experience as a WFB player that makes them sensible. Not to mention how confusing the "alternate combat rules" are. These seem to require that I already know how to play D&D. Thankfully, I do. How much damage does a weapon do in the three booklets again? (hint -- less than you think)

In fact, without either ignoring a lot of rules, or making up your own stuff, these games are pretty much are unplayable unless you already know how to play. The books don't teach you how to play, rather they provide the reminders for those who already know how to play. Back in the day people learned to play D&D from people who already knew how to play.

To quote John Eric Holmes in Dragon 52 (you know the guy who wrote the very first blue box Basic set):

When Tactical Studies Rules published the first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rule sets, the three little books in brown covers, they were intended to guide people who were already playing the game. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible. There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.
When I edited the rules prior to the first edition of the D&D Basic Set, it was to help the thousands (now millions) of people who wanted to play the game and didn’t know how to get started. Gary Gygax acknowledged that some sort of beginner’s book was badly needed, and he encouraged me to go ahead with it.



The fact is that Hasbro, and WotC (as well as TSR back in the day), want new players to play the game. They don't want people to have to "learn" from other people who are already playing. They also want to increase the amount of mechanical balance (maybe to satisfy some of us old timers who like games like Hero that are internally consistent).

There are changes, to be sure, and the game is being aimed at being more accessible, to be sure, but don't you all remember what it was like when you first played the game?

I remember my first D&D gaming experience, in fact I'll never forget.

I was at my friend Sean McPhail's house and his older brothers had been talking about this new fangled game called Dungeons and Dragons that lets you play out adventures like those that you read in fantasy novels or watch in films like THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER and KRULL. From the initial description, I knew that this was the game for me.

So on a blustery Saturday when Sean's older brothers brought over someone who claimed to be an experienced "Dungeon Master." I was thrilled that I would get my first taste of this groundbreaking new game.

I was ten at the time and didn't bat an eye when the "DM" said he didn't need the rulebooks (which I had been perusing for the past few weeks) or any prepared materials to run his dungeon adventure...all he needed was his mind.

He had his "dungeon" memorized you see. I was wide eyed with with anticipation. The first character I played (not my first character), borrowed from the characters Sean had already designed, was a first level Magic-User named, uncreatively enough, Gandalf. Sean, Gandalf, and I were ready for adventure and action. You know, all the stuff I'd read and seen in various fantasy adventures.

That's not what I experienced though. Instead, I was turned into an Axebeak during the first 10 minutes of play after I tried to read a scroll to see if it was magical. The "DM" made me make a Petrification and Polymorph save and I rolled poorly. I missed my saving throw on this "save or get hosed roll." Not that I couldn't have lied, the "DM" had no idea what roll I needed, but that's meaningless. What is meaningful is that my "great and powerful wizard" was now a weird looking bird with no intelligence. I was out of the game and useless.

That's my first memory as a player.

Since that day, I have hated save or die effects. I also don't tend to like "killer dungeons" or things that take individual players out of the "action" for long periods of time. Sure, I've played through brutal Ken St. Andre solo adventures, and those are mean, but those were for distraction when I was alone. Speaking of those, they tend to remind me of my first adventure experience. I wonder if that "DM's" name was Ken.

When it comes to RPGs, I like cinematic action . D&D has always advertised, but rarely delivered (at low levels especially), cinematic action. It is my hope that 4th Edition will finally capture the feel that has been advertised for so long, and I have high hopes. Don't get me wrong, I don't want D&D to become Feng Shui (though I do like that game), I just want it to be more balanced, better able to simulate cinematic action, and I want it to be fun.
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