I had a chance to actually play D&D; 4th edition today. A friend of mine who still works at WotC got permission to run the demo adventure from the D&D; Experience at her monthly game day. Since I’m still waiting for WotC to finalize the Game System License, this was the first opportunity I’ve had to see something of the rules and try them out.
It’s an interesting system that didn’t so much feel like D&D; in play; nonetheless, the brand power of D&D; all but ensures this will be a success and it may even redefine what D&D; means for the next generation.
Since the announcement of 4E last Gen Con, a common critique of the emerging rules was that they looked more to MMOs than RPGs. My play experience suggests something else. The roots of the new rules are not in MMOs at all, but collectible card games. Building your character seems much like building a deck in Magic: the Gathering. You have a selection of powers and special abilities that are exceptions-based. Some powers you can only use once per encounter, like tapping a card in a CCG. Character turns have a very specific order, with beginning and end of turn actions used to handle bookkeeping issues. Part of character and party building revolves around power combos. In short, 4E seems to be what people feared was going to happen with 3E after WotC bought TSR, though thankfully without a collectible component.
Now one of my concerns had been that 4E would simply be a revised 3.5. I’m glad 4E is not that. I really felt that 3.5 was just more complicated than it needed to be and I hoped that 4E would simplify things. While it does fix many of the ongoing issues with 3.5, my feeling after today’s session is that it’s just complicated in a different way. It’s not something I think experienced gamers will have a huge amount of trouble with, but it does seem that 4E may be even more unfriendly to new players than 3.5 was. It looks like 4E requires newbs to make too many choices and track too many things to make it truly accessible. Since D&D; has always been the entry point for most RPG players, this is my most serious concern.
Of the current D&D; players, I suspect most of them will switch over to the new edition, despite the unimpressive marketing campaign that we’ve seen to date. There are many options for character customization and players who like tactical combat will find a lot to work with. I understand there are some kind of social interaction rules, but I haven’t seen them. The focus seems squarely on combat from what I could tell. There were interesting choices to make during fights and it wasn’t just a matter of trotting out your best attack again and again. The CCG style of the rules and the changes to the IP did make the game feel a lot less like D&D; though, at least to me. And since the rules seem to have been tailored to provide a very particular experience, I don’t think they will make as good of a base for the variety of campaign settings D&D; used to see. It’s pretty clear that WotC realizes this, which explains why they felt the need to advance the timeline and have an apocalyptic event in the Forgotten Realms. I don’t think many of the old campaign settings will transition over without a lot of cutting, spindling, and mutilating.
What I think WotC is going for here is what Marvel managed to pull off with their Ultimate line of comics: take the core of the IP and redefine it for a new generation. There will certainly be some longtime fans disenfranchised by this move, but I don’t think there will be enough of those folks to hurt 4E. (I do think, however, that there will be enough of those for a third party company to carve out a good business for itself catering to them, but that’s a topic for another day.)
All of this is, of course, based on what I’ve managed to glean so far from released info and today’s play experience. I would naturally like to see the new rules in their entirety and doing so may change my opinion about some things. If the GSL gets sorted out this month, maybe I’ll get the chance for a more in-depth read soon. If I feel like spending 5K to do so anyway.