PnP Ponderings: D&D 4th Edition Launches

My copies are still in the mail, but I had a chance to read someone else’s. Once I have time to read in-depth, I will have reviews at the book site, but I wanted to post some metagame thoughts. That is, while I have not played 4th Edition, there are many things to be said about the direction the rules have taken and how 4th Edition will work as a product line.

If you have any interest, you have already heard that things have been simplified. The 3rd Edition push to unify subsystems has been taken further. Notably, there is one table for how everyone gains abilities. Page 29 is it. No longer do Fighters gain bonus feats on even levels while Rogues gain sneak attack on odd levels, with every caster class having its own table of how many spells of which levels they gain at each level. Everyone uses the same table, with each class having its own list of abilities to choose from. (Reference City of Heroes/Villains, which uses the same ability selection model for its dozen archetypes.) Page 29 is it.

The game takes a menu approach. Every level you pick one of about four options. Level 1 Wizards no longer pick from fifty spells, although they do get a spellbook that gives more options between days.

Again, this applies to everyone. Fighters get level 29 “exploits,” their equivalent of spells. (Reference Tome of Battle for the first draft of how this works.) Seeing level 29 spells after all these years is a bit disconcerting, but it will probably make more sense in the long run than “you get 9th level spells at caster level 17 [list disclaimers and exceptions here].”

MMOs stole most things from pen and paper, and now D&D is stealing them back. Classes are channeled into one of four roles: tank, DPS, CC, support. A Fighter is a tank, a Ranger is DPS, and a Cleric is support. That CC category is sparse, just Wizard for now, and Wizards can double as AE damage or support, but your tank will have abilities that are effectively debuffs and battlefield control.

Switching to product line comments, you will notice that there are only eight classes in the Player’s Handbook. You may not have noticed the subtitle for the PHB on the title page: “Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes.” The plan is to publish future books with the other “power sources,” so the Barbarian and Druid will be in the primal power book, with at least five power sources in the queue. Yes, psionics will return. My expectation is for Player’s Handbook 2 to release in about a year, with Player’s Handbook 3 a year after that, etc. Maybe publish them more like the Complete series, who knows.

The structure lends itself to expansions in other directions. You can add new items to classes’ menus the way you added spells in previous editions. “Paragon paths” will be the new prestige classes, with a dozen in every new book alongside the feats and magic items.

If I might digress, I was excited about the 3rd Edition multi-classing rules. After years of seeing a new class in every Dragon Magazine and every other accessory, easy multi-classing was a more elegant approach. If you wanted a class that was 80% Fighter, 15% Rogue, and 5% Wizard, just make a Fighter 16/Rogue 3/Wizard 1, using the existing tools instead of re-inventing the wheel. (In practice, gameplay did not support this as a strong option.) And then the DMG introduced a few “prestige classes,” which multiplied like gremlins at a water park and came to dominate all the future publications. How many versions of the fighter-mage do we need? At least 20, it seems. (Enjoy it though I did, it seemed like an unfortunate design space to explore.)

Anyway, I am expecting 4th Edition books to go there. Every new book can have two pages for a new race, ten pages detailing a new class (its menu of powers), five pages of new options for existing classes’ menus, five pages of new paragon paths, five pages of epic destinies, five pages of feats, ten pages of magic items, and ten pages of new monsters, along with five pages of role-playing discussion of the new race, ten for the new classes and prestige paths, and five for the epic destinies. If the book introduces a new power source, add thirty pages so that you can have four new classes, one each for tank, DPS, CC, and support. Let’s see, that puts us at 102 pages, so add 15 to discuss role-playing these other new classes and the new power source, a title page, table of contents, introduction page, character sheet (front and back), and two pages hawking the rest of the product line. 124 pages, and 128 is a standard book length, so we can toss in a new god and its church at four pages, or just leave them as slack for pictures or a section that is running long.

There, we just developed a template to sell hardcover books for those other five power sources. We can produce one of these every six months, no sweat. Ooh, better yet, add a new power source every year, with a mid-year book expanding the existing sources. PHB2, 3, … every June, with a juicy supplement six months later, in time for Christmas. Release a smaller accessory the other two quarters, something themed like 3rd Edition’s Frostburn or Races of the Wild. Add an adventure and a novel per month, and let’s round out the product line with a setting specific book each month: Forgotten Realms and Eberron once per quarter, with the third month rotating between other settings. Release a miniatures set and a pack of miniatures tiles each quarter. Am I on to anything here? I have not checked the actual product schedule.

Enough product line speculation. Back to the books!

Magic items have moved to the PHB. The DMG is now mostly fluff rather than crunch. It discusses being a dungeonmaster, novel enough. Here are some player types and what things interest them. Here is how to pull together an interesting encounter. Here are some ways to put together your ideas and facilitate your players’ ideas. I spent the least time with this book, so I will move on.

The Monster Manual still has monsters. Comforting. The basic format is one monster-type per page, with two or three versions on that page (or more spilling across extra pages). If we are talking about lizards, you get a giant lizard for level 4, a flaming lizard brute for level 12, and a dark lizard harbinger for level 26. MMO players will be familiar with fighting the same lizard with a different color palette every five levels.

The monster descriptions have been trimmed to fit all that on a page or two. The stat box is much smaller than 3rd Edition. Remember the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendiums, which luxuriated in discussions of monster ecology? Yeah, that’s gone.

Monsters have also been channeled into their own roles, like brutes and artillery. Note also minions (1/4 monsters, and they drop in one hit), elites that count as two, and “solo” monsters that count as five. The standard encounter now has more enemies, with experience totals returning to expel Challenge Ratings. Beholders and dragons become relatively nastier when they are designed to be as effective as a comparable-level troll warband.

Oh, and the ever-popular Tarrasque is back. His latest incarnation hopes to make him a big threat again, including an aura that brings flying foes within his reach.

This got too long a while ago, and I am not even delving into specifics much. Please toss in your own thoughts, or link to your blog where you posted a similarly rambling discussion. We end with a classy note from the credits page: “Dedicated to the memory of E. Gary Gygax.”

: Zubon

8 thoughts on “PnP Ponderings: D&D 4th Edition Launches”

  1. I picked up the books, and I like a lot of what’s in there. The multiclass stuff seems a lot more viable than it was in the past, particularly for spellcasters, even if it doesn’t allow for as much individuality in some ways. I like that half-elves are no longer humans with pointy ears and terrible racial abilities. I also like that they split out elves to a wood elf type and a high elf type from the get-go.

    They’ve added implements as spellcaster weapons, so having a magical holy symbol if you’re a cleric or a better want if you’re a wizard actually matters; on top of that, wizards can choose what type of implement they specialize in, and it has a minor but useful game effect. For that matter, while fighter weapon choice kind of mattered previously, it’s right up in the front of concerns now, with they type of weapon you like using determining what abilities you’re probably going to want to take.

    I don’t like that they released with so few classes, even though I understand why they did. I know that there’s several coming down the pipe shortly, the first being the swordmage in the Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms. It’s an odd choice, given that I’d think getting the more familiar classes in earlier would have a higher rank; in particular, there’s druids all over the Forgotten Realms, so I have no idea how they’re going to skirt that.

    On the DM side, I’ve run one of the demos and found it to be a much more pleasant experience than 3e. It all seemed to run much more smoothly, and that’s after only having played a couple of demos as a player. I’m glad that they’ve put more fluffy stuff in the DMG, because that’s, arguably, the harder side of DMing. I also like their default setting assumptions. The kind of safe and developed world that you see in FR and even, to a lesser extent, Greyhawk are gone, and replace with a “points of light” setting. Villages, towns, and cities are relatively safe places in a sea of dark and dangerous forests, ruins, mountains, and caves. Traveling more than a day outside of town is very dangerous, and adventurers coming into a new town are likely to have the whole town coming out to ask for help with their troubles. It’s very wild west, and very much like the way D&D started out.

  2. I think D&D 4th edition will make for some very fun CRPG’s. And for the first time since the original pool of radiance, I will not be torqued off that the computer version of the game does not follow the table top versions rules since I will not know them.

  3. As I read abilities, I note the disappearance of “save or die” spells. In 3rd Edition, Fireball and other spells that did hit point damage were pretty, with the handfull of dice to throw, but far less effective than the buffs, debuffs, and myriad ways to take out an enemy in one shot (either completely or to make him a trivial target). You just needed to pump your initiative and save DCs.

    I have yet to re-norm my expectations for what is a worthwhile spell. 3d6 still looks really lousy. Maybe it will be better if I become more familiar with how hard it is to drop monsters.

  4. Nero, it is a CRPG, or more accurately a MORPG:
    And I think it’s definitely geared to be just that.

    I’m curious to see how the game actually plays PnP. The overt molding of the combat system to mirror readily noticeable MMORPG tropes is jarring to me in MMORPGs – I can’t even begin to imagine how obnoxious it would be in a PnP game.

    I’m all for cross-fertilization between CRPGs and PnP RPGs. I guess I just don’t like it when the features crossing over are the ones I despise.

    The question is, am I curious enough to actually dedicate a session of excellent PnP gaming to testing just how much I hate this new edition of D&D?

  5. So far my skimming has revealed some good and bad. I think most of your observations are spot on, especially including the forthcoming additional hardcovers.

  6. After reading the books it looks like they took an MMO and packaged into table top gaming. I see elements of the Old Warhammer Quest table top game as well. Simplicitiy.

    Which is good and bad. More ppl will have access to a solid game, without having to have a stellar DM. The system is also much faster, and after play testing a bit, flows well.

    My concern is that this will hurt the storytelling and roleplay skills that a “deeper” system brings out. Characters no longer move feet, they move squares…you can “respec” your skills as you level. I forsee a lot of group degenrating into number crunching stackers like we see in the MMO world.

    For my upcoming 4th edition group, I’ll def be putting restriction and RP behind these tables and skills. I’ll also use the faster combat system to take emphasis off number crunching and add more description to combat.

  7. mmh, 1st as i see the new book in my german shopdealers desk as new product, i see the 3 damm things i not love:
    – 1 hp monsters (with the stats of full monsters, but ..)
    – every level a feat for every class
    and last
    – some lost of the great spice of imagination in a new aera to get the childs of the pc inet world on one desk with realy dice (and other effects like y see y partners in real, no hidden pseudonyms avatars and so on

    mhh maybe the “NEW” dnd is more Plug n Play as Pen n Pencil?
    thxs for the article

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