So it’s not something I normally talk about on such a google searcheable site–even though I seem to have no problems filling my webpage full of Lord of the Rings fanfiction and essays about Magic the Gathering. Anyway, aside from LARPing, this thing I don’t normally talk about is kind of the nerdiest thing you can do, and discussing it in public only makes it worse. I’m speaking, of course, about Dungeons & Dragons and “role playing games” in general.
However, if there is one thing that will get a nerd to open up and tell the internet how they really feel, it’s when they feel the need to nerd rant about something. And right now I feel the need to nerd rant about the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, D&D 4.0. But first let’s start with a bit about what I like about “role playing games” in order to better understand the areas in which I feel that D&D 4.0 is a failure.
If you are not super familiar with D&D (and roleplaying games in general), I’ll start by saying it deserves a bit of the stigma attached to it. The reason I once had a 13 year old who heard me mention D&D blurt out “You still play that!??” is because D&D is pretty much just “playing house” in a dungeon. But, you know, I don’t think that people should quit using their imaginations once they reach adolescence, and as both a storytelling activity and an exercise in outside the box thinking, roleplaying games can actually be pretty great.
In a roleplaying game, each player creates a character that has certain abilities (that range from being able to sneak to being a good fighter depending on what you choose) while one person (the unfortunately named “dungeon master”) acts as a referee who tells the characters the outcomes of their decisions (based on a broad idea of what is “fair” and dice rolls to add some randomness). So obviously a role playing game will be all about the Dungeon Master. If the dungeon master can tell a good story, think on their toes, fairly arbitrate the outcomes of the player actions and come up with plenty of possible plot hooks to keep things interesting (without leading the players by the nose into doing specific things) then the players should have a blast.
Now if you are playing any other type of game (be it a video game or a board game) the rule set of the game will constrain your actions (which is fine, manipulating a narrow rule set to achieve victory against others under the same constraints can be a lot of fun too), so if I am playing a video game and my character can’t climb walls, then I can’t climb over the enemy wall and have to go through the gate like the designer intended. So the huge appeal of D&D is that you really can do anything you want. In D&D you could climb the wall, burn the castle, destroy the dam up the valley to wash out the castle or go make a deal with a rival orc tribe and let them fight it out for you.
So sure, it’s about as nerdy of an activity as a group of adults can engage in, but “at its best” it can be a lot of fun anyway. Unfortunately, the most popular role playing game system in the world (Dungeon’s and Dragons), just released its fourth edition rule set and, in my opinion, it is far from a role playing game “at its best”.
Most of D&D 4.0’s failings for me stem from how combat focused the system is. Now, I realize that most role playing game groups are pretty combat focused, I mean that’s why dudes play this stuff so they can act out all their inner caveman urges on orcs and bugbears. And to be fair, Dungeons and Dragons has always been a pretty combat oriented system which makes it seem cheap to complain about the 4.0 rules as “too combat heavy”.
But with the new edition, pretty much every “power” that your character can have is a combat exclusive, generic “do X amount of damage” power with an added effect from a relatively short list of effects (push, pull, teleport, immobilize, blind, etc). My druid attack that does 15 damage and slides my opponent one square is distinguishable from a similar fighter attack in name only. And the names don’t even really work…I’m not sure how something like a bard’s “vicious mockery” attack does its damage.
The end result of all this in a game that already focused on combat (which, again, is the way most players seem to prefer to play anyway) is that D&D 4.0 becomes an endless dice rolling session where all the characters feel the same as they pick between their assortment of bland powers. I’m being a bit overly negative…combat in 4.0 does have some interesting decisions, but not so much as a role playing game, more as a tactical miniatures based board game. And if I want to play a game like that, there are plenty of better options.
So, even though combat wasn’t my favorite part of the old versions of D&D, at least your spells and powers used to let you be a bit more creative. I mean, you could do all kinds of cool stuff with spells like grease (which created a whole bunch of grease all over everything) and especially the assortment of “illusion” spells that was a lot more interesting than “well I guess I’ll use my 20 damage power now and move him one space”.
My complaints so far are on the combat focus of the 4.0 rules set, but I think there is a deeper issue at play. After all, as so many of the 4.0 fans will quickly point out, it’s still a role playing game, you can still do whatever you want, this one just happens to have a well developed combat system. But it can also be a very limiting system with its attempts to “balance” the characters. I played a character with the ability to change shape into any animal. But the rules specifically state that I got no actual powers from these animals, I just looked like them. So a whole myriad of cool options (everything from burrowing as a gopher to turning into an octopus to cling to the side of the cliff you fell off of) were taken away from the get go.
So, while any role playing game is just an exercise in using your imagination, the best ones will at least provide you with cool tools to play with rather than just an endless series of powers that do a bit more damage to creatures you fight at each level. The mindset that 4.0 doesn’t take away any options but rather provides a great combat system on top of a regular role playing game is flawed since the combat system is so structured it is boring and there isn’t anything else to the game when you look for non combat related powers.
Even the last (still very combat oriented) edition of D&D (3.5) was a lot of fun just because it had a good amount of cool things to do outside of combat too. I remember just between a “create stone” spell and a “decanter of endless water” making everything from a water laser to a modified jet pack. That is what role playing games are about to me: taking the things the system gives you and seeing what kind of cool stuff you can do with them. So after trying 4.0 for while, it has really started to feel like a role playing game system with all the good stuff taken out of it. And damnit, if I’m going to do something as nerdy as play a role playing game, I at least want to play a good one!