Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
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Review and Comparison

I am still playtesting 4th edition so this review may change over time (although I highly doubt my stance will change), but these are my conclusions thus far.
- Charles Moffat.

A Bit of Background

D&D has been around since 1974 and has since gone through numerous editions and revisions. The first version was made by Gary Gygax (b.1938 - d.2008). This is technically the 6th version of the game that is being played by millions of people around the world. As such expectations for what 4th edition would be is rather high, and the results as you will soon see are a bit over the top.

Note: A lot of rules and ideas talked about below will only make sense to players or people who have leafed through the new books.

RACES

Gnomes are out, and so are half-orcs. The lowly gnome has been relegated to the pages of the Monster Manual. Meanwhile the game designers apparently have misfits on the brain because they've added Dragonborn and Tieflings to the list of playable races. (Many DMs will likely refuse to allow these two races for the sake of campaign flavour and reinstate the gnome anyway (Gnome racial traits and PC stats are on page 277 of the Monster Manual).

There is also the addition of Eladrin, which look and feel like grey elves, except they can teleport themselves 5 squares once/encounter using Fey Step.

CLASSES & POWERS

In 4th edition your class is really a selection of special powers and class features unique to your class (although other classes may have similar abilities). Druids, bards, barbarians and sorcerers are gone and they've been replaced with the warlord and warlock. The warlord is basically a bard in heavy armour, and the warlock most closely resembles the D&D 3.5 warlock which many players have previously complained was too powerful.

Powers (combat actions, prayers, spells, etc) are the most important parts of the class and make up 90% of what you actually do during combat.

Clerics: Healing is now heavily dependent on a new ability called Healing Surges, which is basically the equivalent of bandaging wounds, getting an adrenaline rush, etc. In the case of clerics they can activate a healing surge using either their Healing Word or by using one of special powers like Healing Strike (you attack an enemy and heal your ally at the same time, but only if you actually manage to hit the enemy). Clerics become more like paladins effectively.

Fighters: Playing a fighter is more about dealing either massive damage or trying to outmanoeuvre your enemies. Various options allow fighters to attack multiple targets at the same time or one after the other. Some powers even allow the fighter to gain extra hit points, heal themselves spontaneously or even gain a Damage Reduction.

Paladins: Think the fighter has become too powerful? The paladin can Divine Challenge targets in an effort to force specific targets to fight only the paladin. This works a bit like the Magic the Gathering ability known as Provoke. (A lot of the changes in 4th edition seem to be clear rip offs from the Magic the Gathering card game.) A lot of the paladin's abilities depend on using holy "Radiant energy".

Rangers: As the only class that can use dual weapons in 4th edition rangers become extremely powerful. Most of the special abilities seem to cater to the idea of outmanoeuvring opponents and using hit and run tactics.

Rogues: Thieves, scoundrels and what-have-you gain a new ability called First Strike (another ripoff from Magic the Gathering). Rogue powers are designed to trip up, daze or blind foes so that they can sneak attack CONSTANTLY. In fact combined with the Bluff skill a rogue could potentially sneak attack as often as they want.

Warlocks: Like min-maxing your spells and doing lots of damage? Warlocks are definitely for you. Warlocks are split into what I would call three sub-classes: Star, Fey and Infernal. Depending on which one you pick the character ends up being either more holy, more trickster-like, or more demonic. Players who love dealing tonnes of damage will be leaning towards the Infernal.

Warlords: A key feature of this new bard-ish class is the Inspiring Word which allows allies to sudden healing themselves with a Healing Surge. It is exactly identical to the cleric's Healing Word power. The Warlord however plays more like a tactical commander who can buff allies and even give allies extra attacks using Commander's Strike, Hammer and Anvil or other similar powers.

Wizards: The lowly mage got the short end of the stick in 4th edition. There is now a much smaller range of spells to choose from but they can use them constantly (basically wizards are the new sorcerers). Classic staples like Magic Missile now have a saving throw and like the warlock each spell is now a min-maxers wet dream. Example: Ray of Enfeeblement now does damage AND weakens the target, but only for a single round. New spells like Force Orb allow wizards to cast what is basically a small fireball at 1st level.

Roleplaying Note: A lot of the powers listed above (Healing Word, Divine Challenge and Inspiring Word are prime examples) do not actually get ROLEplayed during combat. In theory the PCs are saying things like "God grant you life!", "I challenge you to a duel!" or "Once more into the breach!" but the players don't actually bother to say these things. Instead the rules and the combat are such that it all becomes very static. Players end up spending their initiative turns deciding what power would be the most advantageous or deal the most damage and actual roleplaying is completely ignored. Players could go ahead and say such things anyway on their turn, but the combat rounds and the constant flipping through the rulebooks for the different powers (or worse, using power cards which makes the game feel more like Magic the Gathering) ends up taking up so much time that you don't really get a chance to properly roleplay.

Note: There is also no multiclassing in 4th edition. You can get cross class feats, but they're crap for roleplaying purposes. Want to play a rogue/warlord who is a gang leader? Can't happen with these rules.

FEATS & SKILLS

Feats in 4th edition have been severely dumbed down. Its all about what class or race you are now when it comes to picking your feats, and because most feats are class or race specific it means your options for picking feats are extremely limited. Also please note that in this edition only ranger can use two weapon fighting, no matter what feats you choose.

Skills have been streamlined and lumped together. The new skill Thievery for example is an amalgamation of trap disabling, picking locks, picking pockets, sleight of hand and anything else that involves thievery (including forgery and disguise). While this is certainly easier to keep track of, we should also mention that skills are now very class specific. Acrobatics for example is a ranger or rogue skill, so if you want a halfling wizard who can tumble regularly you will need to use a Skill Training feat just to properly use that skill. You could try using it unskilled, but chances are much more likely you will fail when its important (such as falling off a 30 foot cliff [falling damage is now 1d10 per 10 feet]).

EQUIPMENT

Looking for lots of options? You've picked the wrong edition. The armour and weapon selections in 4th edition are extremely limited and leave very little left to the imagination. The only polearms left are the glaive and the halberd, but they kept spiked chain for the power-gamers who love getting ranged opportunity attacks. Weapon proficiency now gives a +2 or +3 bonus to hit depending on its type, so that means anyone could use a spiked chain, you just won't get the +3 to hit with it.

Chain shirts, studded leather, splint/banded mail and half-plate don't even exist any more. So much for flavour and roleplaying. Instead you can now get munchkin-ized spiritmail, wyrmscale armour or the ultimate power-gamer's dream: Godplate. I shit you not. They actually called it Godplate, and it gives a +14 bonus to AC, and it must have a minimum of +6 enchantment. (Magical items are no longer limited to +5 because +6 is the new limit.) Ergo, Godplate gives a minimum +20 to AC.

The PHB now contains descriptions of magical items, some of them very cheaply priced. One of special note is the wands, which appears to be completely ripoffed from the Harry Potter franchise. If you want to play a wizard or a warlock, a wand is practically a necessity now as it boosts your attack bonus with your spells. A +1 wand is a mere 360 gold pieces. Also wands don't have charges any more, instead they are permanent items with 1 daily charge of a special spell. Want a Wand of Witchfire +2? Its only 3400 gold.

Magical weapons have also become extremely powerful. They now have a burst effect on criticals based on the + bonus of the weapon. A +3 weapon now deals a bonus 3d6 on a critical hit, a +6 weapon an extra 6d6. There is a reason for this however, as you will see in the MONSTERS section below.

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COMBAT

Combat in 4th edition is really about movement. You are constantly moving or "sliding" from one square of the map to the next. In 3rd edition using miniatures was optional, players could still imagine the combat in their heads. In 4th edition miniatures are now basically mandatory. The combat rules describe everything in terms of squares (the size of square doesn't matter anymore). An excellent example is the rogue power Deft Strike which allows the rogue to "slide 2 squares" towards or away from the enemy and then do either a melee or ranged attack. The point is to try to flank the opponent and backstab them. Having miniatures and a map becomes necessary to avoid confusion.

As a player however this sliding idea is extremely annoying during actual game practice. It results in rules lawyering and a lot of power-gaming activity. The character uses a power to slide, which triggers an enemy's ability to slide as well and the interplay between different powers (conveniently written on power cards) makes the game feel more and more like Magic the Gathering being played with both cards and miniatures (another comparison would be the popular Warhammer miniatures game which simulates battlefield scenarios). While this sliding mechanism may be more accurate in terms of actual footwork during real life, the game designers seem to have forgotten that this is a fantasy roleplaying game. This amount of emphasis on outmanoeuvring the opponent is not why people play the game. Realism isn't worth crap when we'd much rather be using our valuable gaming time roleplaying than arguing over movement/slide rules.

Granted, movement was one of the problems in 3rd edition and 3.5 too, but the rules were much simpler then. 4th edition has made movement rules way more complicated and mucked everything up with constant irregular movements. There is 4 pages in the PHB dedicated to movement and position alone, and can tell you right now those 4 pages are going to be 4 of the most used pages in the entire book because of all the problems they will entail.

In combat the most powerful ability you can now have is to be able to move/slide the enemy against their will. Why? Because it can provoke attacks of opportunity, and that in turn is extremely powerful.

MONSTERS

Thus far you've probably already guessed that the character classes and races have become much more powerful with all their special new abilities and powers. That is definitely true. But there is a reason for it, and the answer is because the monsters are now extremely powerful too.

Kobolds, that lowly staple of Dungeons & Dragons has now been split into different categories: 1 hit point minions and elite warriors/spellcasters that have hit points ranging from 24 to 42 (and in theory can go much higher). The elite 4th edition kobolds are tougher than 3rd edition ogres. Much of this is due to a rule change to hit points that gives both characters and elite monsters bonus hit points equal to their constitution).

Ogres likewise have been split into minions and elites. But the silly thing here is that the minion ogres ALSO have 1 hit point, whereas the elite ogres have between 91 to 286 hit points. The 286 Ogre Warhulk for example has a special hurricane ability (like 3rd edition's Whirlwind attack) which not only hits everything around it, but knocks them all down too.

I haven't got to the good stuff yet.

Dragons... It wouldn't be Dungeons & Dragons without dragons in it. A young red dragon, barely above a hatchling, has 332 hit points. Scared yet? The ancient red dragon has 1390 hit points. I am not even going to bother telling you what all their special abilities are, you can glance through the books in the store yourself or check out a friend's copy to see how sickly powerful they are.

The problem I have with this is that these monsters are not Dungeons & Dragons monsters. It may say D&D on the book cover, but it isn't. This feels more like the Palladium roleplaying game, which is more like D&D on steroids and superpowers.

CONCLUSIONS

A friend of mine who has also playtested 4th edition has remarked that D&D 4th edition should be called Super Powers D&D or something similar, and after playtesting it myself I am forced to agree. I wouldn't even stick D&D on the cover however. I think this is an abomination of the game. They have totally ruined it. They have ripped off the Harry Potter franchise, ideas from Magic the Gathering, Warhammer and World of Warcraft in an effort to make a game that would appeal to computer gamers, a young generation of Harry Potter fans and those losers who play Warhammer (add a plastic guitar to the mix and they could try and draw in the idiots who play Guitar Hero II).

And in the process they have alienated large numbers of roleplayers, people who have been playing this game for 10, 20 or 30 years. 4th edition is setup to be a game for hack-and-slashing powergaming min-maxers who want to fight really big monsters with tonnes of hit points, and statistically looks like they COMPLETELY ripped off the Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game (a game I dislike for exactly the same reasons I am dissing this one).

Granted a person can still play 4th edition and roleplay out events and scenarios, but in practice the rules really discourage any kind of roleplaying activity. You can test the system out for yourself if you don't believe me, but I don't recommend purchasing the books. Borrow a friend's copy of the books or download the PDFs, but otherwise 4th edition is complete crap and a waste of money.

Admittedly I began playtesting 4th edition with not the greatest expectations. I was already expecting the new system to be horribly power-gamed and was not surprised when it turns out I was correct. What am I surprised at is the sheer abomination and the obvious greed involved.

The combat system was deliberately designed to make miniatures mandatory for any combat situation. Small surprise, Wizards of the Coast (the company that now owns and makes the D&D franchise) has released a new series of 4th edition miniatures and what a surprise, they raised the prices on miniatures.

The glaring omissions of various races and classes from the Player's Handbook suggests that there will be supplementary books for druids, bards and barbarians (also note these 3 classes that were dropped were some of the more "roleplaying-ish" classes, and very popular ones). That means that the people who seriously love the roleplaying over the roLLplaying will have to wait until they release books and statistics for those classes (or try to make their own version in the meantime).

You may have noted I haven't mentioned much about the actual 4th edition Dungeon Master's Guide. The new guide is filled with advice on how to run a campaign, create maps and adventures, using traps and puzzles and even a whole section on "Published Adventures", a blatant effort to encourage Dungeon Masters to buy adventures rather than making their own. There is also another section on Published Campaigns, again an effort to get DMs to purchase more books. The book even has a sample pre-made town and quest. My advice for DMs who are experienced and know what they are doing? Don't even bother buying this complete piece of crap book. Its really an advice book for people who have NEVER been a Dungeon Master before. Almost completely useless. (The DM in our playtesting barely even touched the DMG.)

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is seriously are a complete waste of time and money. They got it right with 3rd edition. 4th is just an abomination.

Gary Gygax, who died this past March 2008, should be embarrassed of the abomination and complete rip-off his game has been turned into.

COMPARISON

Dungeons & Dragons - I've never played or playested the original D&D game, but I will give it 3 stars based on what I've seen of the original rulebooks.

1st Edition AD&D - A well balanced game, but wizards are rather useless and squishy at low levels. 4 stars.

2nd Edition AD&D - Likewise a very good balance. The addition of the skills system was needed and wizards had the option of specializing which made them more useful, but still squishy so it balances out. 5 stars.

3rd Edition D&D - A very good balance. Definitely the best version of the game. Some people argue that rangers are a bit weak in this edition, but they forget rangers also get spells and an animal companion. 5 stars.

3.5 Edition D&D - Rather power-gamed, made rangers too powerful. Too much magic. I give it 3 stars.

4th Edition D&D - The artwork is the only thing that is any good. I wouldn't even give 4th 1 star. It doesn't deserve any stars.

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