Monday, December 1, 2008

3rd edition vs. 4th edition

If you have to ask, you have no geek cred.

I'm talking D+D, of course. I've played many roleplaying games in the past (Click here for a list), but I always end up coming back to Dungeons and Dragons. It was this game that got me into the hobby. D+D serves like a common language for gamers all over the world. It is D+D more than any other game that my students want to play. There are better games on the market: more realistic, more fun, more involved. D+D was born as a wargame, and it will always appeal to the wargamer in me as much as the role-player. Yet I can't seem to leave it for long. Perhaps it is nostalgia for the sense of wonder and excitement I felt in my first years as a gamer.

At any rate, I was ambivalent about the emergence of a fourth edition of the rules. From where I sat, the Third Edition rules (which did mark a vast improvement over earlier versions, IMO) were not broken, and they still had a lot of life left in them. Another edition, just eight years after 3.0, seemed like just a lame attempt to separate me from my money.

I gave it a shot, though, and I was pleasantly surprised by much of what I found. I liked many things:
1) The powers available to each class meant that everyone had something meaningful to do in every round, even at first level.
2) The skill contest rules provided a fun way to get all players involved in non-combat situations.
3) The simplification of skills made more options available to each character.
4) Ritual spells give the right flavor for more complex magics

I didn't like a few things, but they did not warrant immediate rejection.
1) Given that all powers touch upon combat, it is clear that the emphasis is on action over other forms of problem-solving.
2) The efforts to make multi-classing more balanced leaves characters with fewer options. Add all the paragon paths you want, I still feel like most characters are channeled into a narrow career trajectory.
3) Magic seems too one-dimensional for the initial eight character classes. If I want a spell-caster who is NOT a flash-bang combat monster, well, tough. To me, classical fantasy magicians are enchanters and shape-shifters. Fourth edition doesn't give me much hope that those types will ever fit elegantly into the system.

And so...

I downloaded a copy of the Pathfinder rules last week. Honestly, despite the hype, I don't see it as much more than a tweak on the old 3.5 rules. A very good tweak and one I would definitely prefer to play, but nothing too revolutionary. I guess that's the point, no? Anyhow, seeing those rules again made me re-evaluate my commitment to 4th edition. I had converted my student campaign into 4e, with the thought that the streamlined mechanics would allow newbies to concentrate more on character development and allow them to explore some of the more esoteric aspects of the rules.

I have reached the conclusion that 4e is a very good skirmish-level wargame. That's cool, and sometimes, that is all I want to play. However, the group I have now is more interested in storytelling than mechanics. 4e seems to hold them back in a way that 3e never did. I find it hard to explain why the ranger cannot have an animal companion, or why the wizard cannot learn a charm spell that lasts longer than a combat.
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