When my friends and I started our 4th Edition game we had six players: two were brand new to role playing games, while four including myself had played previous versions of D&D. I don’t think any of us had played 3rd edition—I certainly hadn’t. Even those of us who were experienced gamers hadn’t played a game since high school—that was a long time ago.
When we first started playing 4th Edition I felt like the game had been greatly simplified. Pretty much any situation is decided by trying to roll as high as you can on a 20-sided dice. Situations are assigned difficulty classes (DCs), a number that needs to be beat on the roll of a d20, that indicates how tricky a task is to accomplish. Combat also works this way too. Armour is essentially a difficulty class as well. To hit someone in plate mail you need to beat their AC of 18 when you roll a d20 and add your bonuses. That’s right, no more negative AC! At first blush this made explaining the rules of the game simple: if you want to do anything contentious you just roll a d20. Still, initial gaming sessions were fairly slow going. Eventually it became clear that while some rule changes simplified the game, others added levels of complexity that didn’t exist before.
Character creation is a slow going process in 4th Edition. There are powers and feats to worry about, and lots of bonuses to track. I don’t know if I really noticed how much slower it was the first time I made my character: it was fun and exciting to be playing D&D again. After having to make characters several times for D&D Encounters that charm quickly wore off. I find making a 4th Edition character a giant pain in the ass without the 4th Edition character builder. Even with that tool making a new character takes way longer than I want it to. There is something refreshing about making a character for one of the older editions of the game. My generator spits one out in seconds, but doing it by hand is still quick. (The only real place for analysis paralysis is buying equipment.)
Combat, which felt a lot more open ended and free form in earlier rule books, had become a fair bit more structured in the new rule books. The use of miniatures is assumed, making the game feel a bit like Warhammer. There is a strong tactical combat element to D&D 4e. In my mind this is the biggest plus and minus of the edition. If you are not into the whole ‘combat as chess’ thing you’re going to find playing 4th Edition frustrating. Most gaming sessions with my friends would be spent slogging through combat. We might get through a couple fights in between some exploration on a given gaming night. Combat in 4th Edition is slow going at early levels, and only gets slower as characters level up. In my mind having such clear cut powers also discourages creative play. These explicit “moves” feel stifling. For each situation in combat there is often an optimal choice when it comes to doing damage or providing support. It’s rarely the case that going off script is that optimal choice.
Teaching someone how to play D&D using the 4th Edition rules is trickier than it needs to be because the rules for combat are so complex and nuanced. People need to think about combat advantage and flanking and all sorts of stuff that they might not have thought they needed to think about when they signed up to play pretend. That’s not to say this sort of thing doesn’t exist in older editions of the game, it’s just managed in a simpler loosey-goosey way. Combat comes up often enough in most games of D&D that this is problematic.
Eventually the warts in the game are all you see. I liked playing 4e with my friends, but in hindsight I think we’d have been better off just playing 2nd Edition, which we had grown up with. Of course, we’d probably not have started playing D&D again out of the blue if not for the new edition. For that reason alone I will always have a soft spot for 4th Edition: it’s what got me back into D&D.
Public-play games transitioned to play testing D&D Next, and on my own time I shifted to playing Original D&D. Both variations of the game felt like an improvement over 4th Edition. 5th Edition looks to have addressed my big complaints with 4th Edition: combat is much simpler and faster, and character creation is much simpler. 5th Edition takes the d20 rules from 4th Edition and simplifies them further. Depending on what bits and pieces from the play test they turn into 5th Edition, it may turn out to be the easiest version of D&D to teach and learn. I’m really looking forward to 5th Edition.
As a follow-up to my previous post of getting back into D&D, I thought I would look back at the logistics of playing D&D as an adult. When you’re young you have all the time in the world and no real responsibilities. As adults my friends and I had a much smaller window of time to waste on D&D. Whether my friends and I used that sliver of time as wisely as we could have remains to be seen, but we certainly had a lot of fun.
Getting six adults together to play D&D proved more than a little difficult. Initially we were playing about twice a month. That pace slowed down after half a year of gaming, presumably after some of the novelty wore off. Eventually we started playing once every month or so. The time between games slowly crept up and up till the campaign came to a halt, about a year ago. Our D&D campaign ran from about November 2009 through to August 2012. During that time there were a couple of longer breaks due to weddings and babies.
We used Doodle almost exclusively to schedule games. People would fill out when they were free for the coming month or two and we’d try and find a few days that worked each month. Doodle is fantastic. I don’t think we’d have played anywhere near he number of games we played without it. If you are still trading emails like a chump to organize any event you are doing it wrong.
Meeting up in person got trickier when Dave and Sarah moved out to suburbs. (Dave and I both don’t drive, for starters.) We switched to playing online via video chats almost exclusively for the last few sessions we ran, meeting up occasionally when someone had access to a car and we could car pool. We used Roll20 as a virtual table-top, which works quite well for 4th Edition D&D. Playing D&D online is a pretty good substitute for meeting up in person.
We also used Google Wave (seriously) to takes notes about what had happened during a session in case someone couldn’t make it out, and just so we could keep track of things as the game progressed. It actually worked fairly well for that purpose. If it wasn’t insanely slow and confusing Wave might have fared better. We switched to using Google Docs once Wave shut down. Google+ also has lots of cool services that lend themselves to running a campaign: hangouts, communities, and events being the most notable. I am going to assume there are a bunch of D&D nerds at Google working on tools to help them play D&D using their computers.
The inability of my friends and I to settle on a regular time to meet up and play is what ultimately led to our campaign coming to an end. The amount of effort it would take to schedule a game eventually proved too great. I’ve probably played more sessions of the Vaults of Pahvelorn game I play online over the last year than my friends and I managed to play over three years. Having a consistent schedule for the games has meant we rarely miss a session.
I think a big part of the fun we had playing D&D was probably just getting together to eat greasy take-out food. Our DM Dave lived next to one of the best fish and chips shops in the city for a good chunk of the time we were playing together. That was both fantastic and dangerous.
In October of 2009 my friends and I exchanged a few emails.
Dave: I’ve been listening to the Penny Arcade/PVP/Wil Wheaton DnD podcast and it’s made me really want to try playing a game for the first time since high school. Does anyone else want to give it a shot?
Me: I am totally up for playing Dungeons and Dragons. I have been waiting for this day for AGES.
Me: I still have a shit load of second edition books, though I heard that 4th edition is a bit easier to play. (Though, they apparently got rid of THAC0 and other things at some point in time.)
Dave: Yeah, I’m definitely interested in playing. I just got my GST tax rebate back and could totally splurge on the required manuals. Pretty sure I still have HeroQuest back at my parents’ place, so I have a bunch of generic miniatures and dungeon-board pieces that could be used.
Sarah: I have no idea what any of these acronyms mean. I think I’m in trouble.
Dave: It’s just like Munchkin, only with more numbers and acronyms and complicated rules you constantly need to be cross-referencing in a large appendix.
Me: My cousin Jana might be interested. I can check with him and see if he’d want to play. He’s a serious ass D&D dude. He used to come downtown back in the day to play Vampire with goths. Hah.
Dave: One of the guys at work, Andrew, wants to play. He also has a friend who’s interested. That’d be six of us.
And so it came to pass that my friends and I started playing D&D again.
My friend Dave received his GST rebate cheque in the mail and decided to spend his new found wealth on the then new Dungeon and Dragons 4th edition rule books. I had thought about buying the books myself when they were first announced because I too enjoy nerdy things. In the end I couldn’t justify spending money on books I probably wouldn’t use. When Dave said he would run a game that changed and I decided to grab the Players Handbook, the only book players need to play.
I was apprehensive about buying new D&D books because I already owned a metric ton of 2nd edition D&D books. This is the edition that was available when I was much younger. Beyond the core books, I owned a slew of books about Dark Sun, one of the 2nd Edition campaign worlds, and a Forgotten Realms expansion called the Ruins of Undermountain. Considering I was completely broke-ass at the time this outlay in cash for RPG books was ridiculous. I wouldn’t say I wasted my money on AD&D books, but I certainly didn’t put them to much use. I suppose I liked reading about D&D more than I liked actually playing the game. (I suspect this isn’t that uncommon.) I was all set up to run a kick-ass Dark Sun campaign I never got around to running. My new Players Handbook, unlike my 2nd edition books, has seen plenty of use over the last few years.
Playing D&D is arguably the nerdiest thing a person can do. My friends and I are all full-on adults. I had thought that these two things taken together would have meant that finding a group to play with would be hard. This was not the case at all. It was shockingly easy to find people to play a game of D&D. It’s quite possible I just know other particularly nerdy people, but we ended up with 5 players fairly quickly. When other people found out about our game they wanted to join as well. I think we could have probably grabbed 4 more players if we had wanted.
My friends and I would meet at Dave’s place whenever we could coordinate our schedules. Actually getting everyone together was by far the most difficult aspect of playing the game. We would have scheduling Doodle’s that covered huge spans of time, and would find days that worked for everyone once in a blue moon. We’d almost always meet on weeknights because weekends were usually busy, and we often played longer than we probably should. When I broke my leg we shifted the venue to my condo. We still managed to play reasonably often. Then Patrick got married, Dave got married, Andrew started dating a girl, we had a baby, Dave had a baby, etc.
Our 4th Edition game is more or less on hold at the moment, but I think most of us are interested in starting it up again. A lot of people gripe online about how 4th Edition ruined D&D, but it got my friends and I back into a game we hadn’t played in over a decade. I suspect this is true for a lot of people. For that it deserves more praise than I can give it.
I would be remiss not to touch on the last season of D&D encounters, as it felt like a vast improvement over the previous two seasons I have participated in. You may recall my previous complaints about D&D Encounters and its overemphasis on combat. This season tried hard to showcase the other aspects of D&D. There was a lot going on each session.
This adventure in this season of D&D Encounters was reminiscent of the sorts of adventures you would see during the hey day of 2nd Edition AD&D. The story is as follows: there is some crazy evil magic turning the sky black in the Forgotten Realm; the PCs are travel all over the realms collecting artifacts, seeking allies, and doing the sorts of things one does in an epic fantasy adventure; things conclude with a crazy boss-fight. The adventure was still ultimately a rail-road, as each weekly session needed to lead into the next, but each individual session was also a lot more free-form. At the store I play at we often have 2-3 tables playing, and each week the path through the adventure would vary greatly between tables. In the previous D&D seasons the only variety came from how the different groups approached combat. The big win this season was that each session featured a lot more to do beyond fighting monsters.
I’m looking forward to what they do in the next season of D&D Encounters. The teaser for the adventure sounds like just my sort of thing:
This D&D Encounters season takes inspiration from classics such as Village of Hommlet and Against the Cult of the Reptile God. Not only does this new story feature characters and locations from beloved past adventures, but there’s another compelling reason to participate.
Players will be able to choose to play using the D&D Next rules or the 4th Edition rules. I’m hoping there is enough interest at the Silver Snail—where I play—to try out the new edition.
Since starting this blog the amount of D&D I’ve been playing has increased greatly. I continue to participate in the Encounters games held at Dueling Grounds. In addition to those games I’ve been playing a fair amount of old-school D&D: a weekly game run by Brendan of Untimately and occasional games run by James M of Grognardia and Reynaldo of Baroviania fame. After playing so much D&D recently I find the differences between the modern incarnation of D&D and its older editions are quite stark.
D&D Encounters is very much the pathological case of a 4th Edition game. Each session is distilled down to the core of 4th Edition: mostly combat with a tiny bit of role playing. For many people D&D Encounters is their first introduction to D&D. After playing in these games for several months now my feeling is that they teach bad gaming habits. Killing things is more or less the only option open to players to resolve conflicts. You might be able to avoid a fight, but there is a disincentive to do so because then you would probably end up with a very short game. Because each Encounters session needs to transition into the next there is also no room for exploration or change. You can’t take a session in a wild new direction. This isn’t true of 4th Edition, obviously, but is of D&D Encounters. I think a good DM can do a lot to keep the game interesting, but the structure of the adventures hinders a lot of creativity.
The Dwimmermount sessions I’ve participated in are actually similar in scope to the Encounters sessions. Dwimmermount offers a good alternative to running a pick up game. Each session is more or less a self contained unit of adventure: you begin on some level of the dungeon and end things back outside. There isn’t some overarching story that ties the Dwimmermount games together. The story is the exploration of the dungeon; the story is what you and the other players choose to make it. Each session can end in all sorts of strange ways because there is no need to lead into the next chapter of a particular adventure.
I’d love to see a D&D Encounters game that was just a dungeon crawl, but i’m not sure that will ever happen. The current structure lets people discuss the game they played in like they might a TV show. Everyone doing their own thing doesn’t facilitate that sort of conversation.
Combat is fast in the older editions of D&D. This is because it’s very abstract. My old-school D&D sessions often feel like they are full of accomplishment. In a few hours you can do a lot: lots of exploring, lots of fighting, lots of puzzles. 4th Edition is much more tactical and meticulous in its presentation of combat. An Encounters session is usually an hour and a half, give or take, and the bulk of that time is spent on a single fight.
I think most people would agree that faster combat is better, but the way 4th Edition handles combat is not without its merit. Because 4th Edition combat is far less abstract you can talk about that fight in a level of detail you don’t often get with older editions of D&D. Dungeon’s Master’s recaps of his Encounter’s sessions are usually quite long, despite the fact they are primarily a description of a fight, because the pieces that make up combat are quite expressive. You really feel the ups and downs of a fight in 4th Edition. In the last game I played we had a round where almost everyone was down, we were on the verge of a total party kill, only to manage a big come back big the next round. It was amazing.
I’m curious to see if the structure of the public play events Wizards of the Coast runs will change with the release of D&D Next. Combat in D&D next is much faster so adventures wouldn’t need to be modeled as a series of fights. They would presumably still be quite linear, but I suspect you could accomplish more per session than you do in the current Encounters program. There are rumours that the next Encounters game will be more varied in what happens week to week. We will have to wait and see.
I woke up the morning following the death of Osrik, my dwarf paladin, realizing the character had a power that would let him re-roll a missed hit when bloody. I’m not sure this would have turned the fight that cost the character his life, but it certainly would have helped. This got me thinking about 4th Edition and its pantheon of classes and powers a little bit more.
Playing–and killing–a few characters in 4th Edition will teach you that the combat mechanics of the game are important to grasp.1 With the Encounters game I participate in I had been playing characters whose abilities the official character builder picked for me. I found I spent the down time between my turns in a battle scanning my list of abilities, trying to pick the one that seemed most appropriate for the situation at hand. This is a sure fire recipe for death and destruction. It can also be kind of boring.
Looking around the table I could see that I was not the only one suffering from this problem. D&D is ostensibly a game where you can do anything you can imagine. That’s what makes it so much greater than a video game: the possibilities are endless. The way 4th Edition has been designed really discourages that sort of play. This is probably the biggest weakness with 4th Edition. When playing my Warlock in my regular 4th Edition game, I spend most of my turns in combat doing some permutation of: moving at least three squares to gain concealment; cursing my nearest enemy; casting an eldritch blast. No matter what the situation may be this is almost always my best choice of action.
The flip side to this is that the enumeration of all these classes and powers is 4th Edition’s biggest strength. You can quantify the challenge of a battle in a way you really can’t with any accuracy in earlier editions of the game. If you’re interested in tactical combat 4th Edition is really unrivalled when it comes to simulating a battle. I don’t think you could do something like Forth Core Death Matches with any of the older versions of D&D. I’m not getting the most enjoyment out of 4th Edition because I haven’t invested the time in learning what options my character has, and how they best work with those of my fellow adventurers. The question for any 4th Edition gamer is whether this is something they even want to do.2
People often compare 4th Edition D&D to a video game. Certainly Wizards of the Coast used a lot of modern video game language when describing character classes and the mechanics of the game, but I suspect that’s because that language is going to be most familiar to new D&D players. I think 4th Edition has more in common with Magic: The Gathering.3 You and your fellow adventures are working together to produce a winning mix of classes and powers–this seems analogous to deck building in Magic. The focus on game balance is a natural extension of this. Magic is a successful collectable card game because there is no one deck to rule them all. Wizards of the Coast seem to have taken what they learned making Magic and tried to apply that to D&D, with mixed results.
I’m curious to see if Wizards of the Coast, or the wider D&D community, do interesting things with 4th Edition once the 5th Edition of D&D has been released. I feel like there is a lot to 4th Edition, if you can get past the fact it’s not exactly the same as every version of D&D that proceeded it.
Some might say they are the only thing to grasp in 4th Edition. ↩
Wizards of the Coast even sell the various powers available for the various classes as packs of cards! ↩
I created Osrik, an (Essentials) dwarf paladin, to play at D&D Encounters this week after the untimely death of my deep gnome cleric Gretzlyn. I was thinking this Paladin would on the tail of his friend the cleric. I won’t get a chance to flesh out his story, because I managed to kill this character as well. Two deaths in two weeks? For shame.
I’m enjoying D&D Encounters, but the last couple battles have been hard. I don’t have any of the D&D Essentials books, so I also don’t understand what’s up with the Essentials versions of the characters I’m playing. The cleric couldn’t turn undead, or do half the things I thought clerics were all about. The paladin couldn’t heal. At all. What kind of paladin can’t do a Lay on Hands?
All is not lost. I have a felling a Kobold Warlock is going to wander into this mess and start doing some avenging. And I know how to play a warlock. In theory, anyway.
When someone makes fun of me for playing D&D I now know that makes then a bit of an asshole. Different people have fun in different ways. A lot of people find different things fun. Most people I interact with nowadays don’t care one way or the other that I play D&D: this is because I’m an adult who now interacts primarily with other adults. Most adults are mature about these sorts of things. The only people I encounter nowadays who mock this outlet for fun are in fact other gamers.
I’ve played every other edition of D&D: original D&D as a kid, 2nd edition as a high school student, and now 4th edition as an adult. Did you know that if you are playing 4th edition you are doing it wrong? I didn’t either till I took to the internet–always a mistake.
For my friends and I 4th edition was the success Wizards of the Coast was probably hoping for: it got a few of old school gamers playing Dungeons and Dragons again. I don’t think any of us had really paid much attention to the game in well over a decade. It’s certainly quite different than the previous editions I’ve played, but having missed 3rd edition I thought many of the rule changes were mana from heaven. (No more negative AC! Even when I was 12 that seemed like a stupid idea.)1
After playing 4th edition for a while I was pretty delighted to discover the community that surrounds old school D&D. There are lots of great articles, books, and modules being put out by an engaged group of people. I’d argue the most interesting stuff happening with hobby right now is a result of the old-school renaissance and all the indie and DIY publishing that surrounds it.
With the noise from Wizards of the Coast around D&D Next I now get to witness the arguments and complaints I wasn’t privy to when 4th edition was first released. It takes real energy to get angry over a game you don’t play, and aren’t interested in playing in the future. People can get defensive about their hobbies. For some I suspect enjoying the game they are playing takes a back seat to justifying to others why it’s the one to play. Those sorts of arguments can be interesting, but it takes a level of effort and maturity that doesn’t seem to come across in much of what I read about 4th edition and D&D next on some of my favourite OSR blogs.
In many ways hardcore D&D fans remind me of hardcore indie music fans. Reading responses to D&D Next reminds me of reading reviews in Pitchfork. Both groups fandom is so transcendent it can only be expressed by hating all music, in the case of hardcore indie music fans, and all tabletop gaming, in the case of your hardcore D&D fan.
There is enough room in this hobby to accommodate everyone and the wide variety of things that draw them to the game. Rule 0 in role playing games is that the DM is always right. I would suggest a Rule 0’: don’t be an asshole.
I don’t think 4th edition is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but those thoughts will have to wait for another post. ↩
At today’s D&D Encounters session my poor cleric Gretzyln was vanquished by those most evil of elves, the Drow. He was supposed to be a hardboiled deep gnome ex-dungeoneer turned fanatical cleric of Pelor, the sun god. I thought it was a cute idea: a guy who spends his whole life living underground leaves that life behind to worship the sun.
Gretzyln was not alone in his fate: it was a total party kill. I didn’t think this blog would earn its name so quickly.
There were 5 people playing at session today: two wizards, an avenger, a vampire, and my cleric. It’s probably not an ideal mix for a party, but that’s always a possibility when you play in these sorts of pickup games. I didn’t think it was particularly out of whack. We were facing off against some sort of Drow necromancer, her henchmen, and some skeletons she animated during the course of the fight.
I’m not completely sure what went wrong. The monsters were all higher up in the initiative order then us, so we did spend a lot of time reacting to them rather than getting out there and messing them up. I had to heal two of our party members (back from death’s door) very early on in the encounter. The skeletons, though there were a lot of them, never really gave us any trouble. Our wizards were well suited to deal with them. We probably could have done a better job trying to avoid the Drow and all their ranged attacks, but I didn’t feel like we were ceding that much of the fight to them. Then our DM started rolling like a man of fire, and our attempt to chase down the Drow and finish them off ended in ruin.
I played in my first D&D encounters session last week. These are pickup games run by people at your local games or comic book shop, using episodic adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. Each adventure runs for 12 or so weeks. Wizards of the Coast set up the Encounters program to introduce new gamers to D&D, and to get people who might have stopped playing back into D&D. It’s been going on for a few years now, so I’m going to assume Wizards has decided it is a success.
The Encounters adventures usually tie into the current set of books Wizards is pushing. The adventure I am playing in is about The Underdark and the Drow. Conveniently there are a couple books about these very things out right now.
It’s been an interesting experience participating in the games. The groups are a strange mix of people. At my local gaming store there are a bunch of little children and a bunch of adults. They split the two groups up for the most part, though both games I’ve played in have included kids. The first game included a quiet girl who I assume was the daughter of one of the other players, while the second game included a boy who was full on into D&D. (He played a Thri-kreen whose family’s knees were all broken by raiders when he was young, so now he is evil and goes around destroying other people’s knees: seriously.) Kids are the best. (Though I suspect playing with a whole table of them would be tiring.)
One of the dungeon masters from Dungeons Master is a player in the game I participate in. He has write ups for the game he runs at another gaming storing in the city, if you’re curious about the specifics of the adventures and how they play out. I’ve enjoyed both games I’ve played in thus far.
Encounters really distils 4th Edition down to its core. So far there has been a little bit of role playing followed up with some full on tactical combat. I suspect depending on the group you play with you’d end up with a different experience week to week. The great thing about D&D is that everyone can approach the same situation very differently. When I read about other Encounters sessions they are nothing like my own.
If you are looking to satiate your urge to play role-playing games D&D Encounters is certainly worth a look. (You can even play online!)