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Subject: An overview of 4th Edition rss

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Merric Blackman
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Dungeons & Dragons, 4th edition, is the latest version of the venerable granddaddy of all role-playing games. It is not exactly the fourth version of the game. By my counting, there have been at least ten versions of the game, but as some have been on "branch" lines of the game, calling this edition "4th edition" makes as much sense as any.

Dungeons & Dragons, at its core, is a fantasy role-playing game where one player takes on the role of referee - the Dungeon Master - and plays the roles of all the monsters and characters the other players - who take on the roles of fantasy heroes - meet. The game is aimed towards resolving threats through combat, although the game also has methods of resolving non-combat challenges.

This edition of the game is balanced towards a group of one Dungeon Master and five players, but scales very well to other group sizes. I have run session with as few as one DM and two players and as many as one DM and six players, and all were enjoyable. Although it would be possible to run a group with more than six players, by that point you have so many players competing for "screen time" that the game begins to degrade markedly.

The basic rules of the game are contained in three volumes. The first, the Player's Handbook (D&D 4e) contains the bulk of the actual rules of the game. In particular, it covers all the rules needed for character generation and combat resolution. Player Characters (PCs) may be created with one of eight races and eight classes. A skill system is also provided for resolving non-combat encounters and to provide further options in combat.

It is recommended that every player own a copy of the Player's Handbook, although it is not strictly necessary.

The second book, the Monster Manual (D&D 4e), contains statistics and descriptions for over 300 monsters that may be faced by the PCs. Monsters are presented in a "stat block" format that allows easy reference to their abilities during play.

The third book, the Dungeon Master's Guide (D&D 4e), contains help and advice for the referee: suggested parameters for designing adventures and encounters, the "skill challenge" system which permits a more complex resolution system for non-combat encounters, as well as a sample adventure and starting town.

All three of these books are required by the Dungeon Master, and are available together in a giftbox package.

Levels of Adventure
Player Characters advance in power through successful adventuring: they gain Experience Points (XP) through slaying monsters, completing quests and overcoming challenges. When they have attained enough XP, they gain the next "Level" of power, gaining bonuses to their existing abilities and often gaining new capabilities.

Fourth Edition further divides these levels into three tiers: "Heroic" (1st through 10th), "Paragon" (11th through 20th) and "Epic" (21st through 30th). Each successive tier opens up new challenges and abilities. Whilst, at the Heroic tier, flying is a rare and unusual ability, by the Epic tier it is almost common.

Paragon levels give each character a "Paragon Path", a suite of abilities related to their character class and the successor to the Prestige Classes of 3rd edition. The Epic levels allow each character to select an "Epic Destiny" which gives more abilities and suggest the ultimate fate of the hero: whether to ascend to become a Demigod or to become a legendary hero remembered for generations to come. The game does not support levels beyond 30th.

Character Roles
One of the more significant changes 4e has made to the D&D game is to formalize the "roles" a character has in combat. Four roles currently exist in the game: Defender, Striker, Controller and Leader.

The Defender role (Fighter, Paladin) is concerned with engaging the foe in hand-to-hand combat (melee) and preventing them from reaching the weaker members of the party. Defenders are characterised by having the best defenses and hit points in the party, and the ability to "mark" opponents so that they have a penalty to hit all but the Defender character.

The Striker role (Ranger, Rogue, Warlock) is concerned with engaging a single foe - either in melee or at range - and dealing as much damage as possible to them and thus killing them as quickly as possible.

The Controller role (Wizard) is concerned with engaging as many foes as possible and restricting their movements or otherwise causing them to be unable to fulfill their plans (whilst still dealing damage to them).

The Leader role (Cleric, Warlord) is concerned with helping the other members of the group work better together: either by healing them, or by giving them bonuses to hit, or through a host of other methods.

Despite the apparent similarities between the roles, two classes that share a role normally play very differently indeed. Each class also has one or two secondary roles which it can utilize. The Warlock, for instance, has a fair deal of the controller in its makeup and the Paladin can act as a leader as well. Whilst the best balanced party will normally have one character fulfilling each role, none is necessary for success. Most of the games I have run have lacked a leader, and other roles have been absent as well. Yes, tactics do need to change if you are missing one of those roles, but none are necessary.

Powers and Feats
In the previous edition of D&D, characters were able to be customized by the use of "feats" and the selection (for some classes) of spells. 4th edition opens up the customization of all characters: all classes now have "powers" that may be taken to represent spells, prayers or special maneuvers their character is skilled in. The role of feats has been downgraded somewhat: previously they could grant brand new abilities. In this edition, they mainly alter the way existing abilities work.

The power system has been a controversial change. All powers are categorized by being one of "Daily" (that is, you can use this power once per day), "Encounter" (once per encounter) or "At Will" (as much as you like. D&D has long had the "Vancian" magic system where magic-users and clerics would have all their spells as "Daily" powers. The addition of some fighter exploits as "Daily" causes problems in versimilitude for some; it might make the game work well and be balanced, but why does it work that way in the game world?

Here rests one of the big changes in the philosophy of 4E from the previous incarnations of the game: the rules work from the perspective of making the game and the adventure work. They are not made for making the theoretical universe work when the PCs are not interacting with it. It does not strain credulity to imagine that a character's best attack is only successful once per day, but the shift to letting the player choose the time may be seen as problematic.

In my game play, the use of "At Wills", "Encounters" and "Dailies" has worked well. It manages to break up the specialization problem that 3E had (a character skilled at tripping would use every attack as a trip). Instead, a 4E character needs to use a variety of powers each combat to succeed. Teamwork is also essential, as many of the powers display synergy with each other. Seeing the fighter knock a foe into the Wall of Flame a wizard has conjured has been enjoyable.

Beginning characters have only a few powers. In general, two At Wills, one Encounter and one Daily. As they gain levels, they gain more: a new Encounter at levels 3 and 7, a new Daily at levels 5 and 9. Utility powers - that is, powers that are not always directly related to combat - are also gained. Once Paragon level is achieved, new powers start replacing the old ones, so that the list of powers is relatively short and manageable.

In general, Fighters now have more options while Wizards have fewer, but that is not the entire story.

Combat and Miniatures
If Third Edition encouraged the use of miniatures, Fourth Edition embraces the concept of miniature-aided combat. Many of the combat powers used by both player characters and monsters are dependent on knowing the position of everyone in the battle. 4E has a large number of powers that shift combatants around the battle: knocking them off ledges, pulling them into the heart of the melee, or switching places with your allies or foes with teleportation!

In truth, spells such as fireball and web in previous editions also worked a lot better with some representation of the combat, but 4e puts the emphasis so much more on the battlemap that it can seem impossible for a good 4e combat to be run without miniatures. From my experiences, if a group wants to put away the minis, the Dungeon Master can still run combat without them. Using narrative techniques to explain the results of a Bull Rush or a Tumble are as effective as they ever have been: it just needs a modicum of trust between the DM and the players.

Still, my players are generally much happier if I'm using miniatures and a battlemat.

Fourth Edition takes a lot more notice of the balance between PCs and monsters than Third Edition did. In fact, 3E suffered from two problems that became extremely significant at high levels: an individual turn would take a very long time to resolve (I've seen a single player take over five minutes to resolve their turn in 16th level 3e), and it was extremely likely that a combat would be over in two rounds - many monsters would get a single attack before going down.

Combats in 4E take about as long as they did in 3E (between 30 minutes and an hour in most cases for experienced players), but tend to have everyone acting more often. If a player took five minutes in 3e to resolve their turn, it is more like to be one minute in 4e, but their turn will come around five times compared to once or twice in 3e. Combat is still slower, IMO, than it was in AD&D 1e and 2e, but there is more going on.

The other significant change with 4E is the use of a standardized set of conditions to represent additional things that may happen in combat. "Weakened", "Dazed", "Stunned", and "Grabbed" are four of them, and each is explained in clear terms in the Player's Handbook. Many powers - for both monsters and characters - inflict these conditions on opponents. The list of all conditions is not that long, and is summarized on the Dungeon Master's Screen, which I believe is one of the best purchases a 4th edition Dungeon Master can make.

Getting used to 4e combat will take several battles. It will run slowly at first; do not be surprised if some early combats take 2 or more hours to resolve. We had the hang of the rules by the second session, and by the third session we were understanding how teamwork plays a much greater role in this edition. Characters can rarely grandstand and solve the entire encounter on their own: it is far more likely to be a group effort, with everyone contributing differently.

Quests, Rewards and Other Challenges
Another addition to the 4e rules is the formalization of experience points for Quests, both Major and Minor. Major quests tend to be things like "Find the swords stolen by Keraptis" or "Stop the giants from raiding our villages". Minor quests can be personal, or just lesser in scope: "Deliver this package to Moonstair". The experience award for a major quest is equivalent to defeating an encounter of the appropriate level; a minor is equivalent to a single monster.

Having this system provides a useful way of giving rewards for games that are not entirely combat-based. You can also give rewards for Skill Challenges, one of the major additions to the D&D game in 4e, but also one of the most problematic.

At their most basic, Skill Challenges provide a way of resolving a non-combat challenge: travelling through the forest without getting lost and avoiding the patrols, negotiating with the king, or chasing after thieves. When they work properly, more than one player in the group can participate and they allow for player ingenuity to resolve the challenges they pose. While negotiating with the King, you might contribute with Diplomacy to reassure him, with History to make mention of facts that are pertinent, or with Insight to see what is worrying him and work that into the conversation.

Unfortunately, Skill Challenges can fall prey to one character being the only one that contributes. "I need to make eight Diplomacy rolls? Then I'll do them all! I'm great at Diplomacy!" Wizards of the Coast have also published errata to Skill Challenges to make the required rolls less - the early system saw too many characters failing. The new system may be too easy! Skill Challenges are potentially one of D&D 4E's greatest innovations, but the system is still not what it could be. It should be noted that Wizards continue to work on refining the system, and more recent skill challenges published in adventures (in particular the one in Journey Through the Silver Caves) have shown that they can shine. For certain challenges, role-playing can replace the rolling of dice.

Treasure rewards for D&D have also become more formalized: in place of the completely random determination of early editions, treasure is now arranged in "packages", showing how much treasure a group should get over the course of a level. All magic items now have a level associated with them. It is at that level that a PC could construct that item (using the Enchant Magic Item ritual), but the treasure found is normally from one to four levels higher than the PCs.

The selection of magic items - now in the Player's Handbook - are fairly functional and lacking in whimsy. Many favourites of previous editions are there, although their form may be somewhat changed. One of the most positive changes is the addition of magic implements (wands, staves, rods, holy symbols and the like) that have a magical bonus in the manner of magical weapons in previous editions. So, a +4 wand of magic missile would both give a +4 to attacks and damage of the wizard using it, whilst also allowing him to use the magic missile spell.

Expansions and Supplements
Some have criticized 4E for not providing every option available in previous editions of the game. In particular, the omission of Bards and Druids from the Player's Handbook was noticed, along with the Metallic Dragons from the Monster Manual.

Without doubt, there has been a great deal of lore gained by D&D over the years. Could Wizards have fit it all into one set of core books? It is doubtful. Some of their choices of omission and addition felt odd, though. Why are Dragonborn a core race and Gnomes not?

As the publishing schedule of 4e has been revealed, and the books have been rolling out, the missing portions of D&D have been appearing. Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Bards, Druids and Barbarians made it back into the game with the Player's Handbook 2 (D&D 4e). Metallic Dragons are in the Monster Manual 2.

The game is perfectly playable without the rest of the supplements, but fans of 4e have been very happy with the quality of what has been released.

However, the most significant innovation has been the release of D&D Insider, a subscription-based service which has as its main draw a database of every official monster, power, class, item and feat in the D&D 4E system. This database is updated every month with the material from the newest books and there are people who no longer buy the 4E supplements as the database gives them what they need instead. The effectiveness of this at the game table cannot be underestimated: we've often had at least one player with a link to the Insider, and it is brilliant for a quick look-up of game elements.

The official Character Builder (alas, only usable by PC computers) is also brilliant.

Points of Light and the Game World
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition has reimagined a lot of elements of the game world. Its overarching philosophy is one of "points of light": the world is a dangerous place, with little isolated settlements holding back the darkness, with the player characters as some of the few who can brave the world.

The mythology of the world underpins the new setting: In the beginning, the Gods and Primordials warred - the Primordials being creatures of the elements. A seed of evil in the Elemental Chaos which the Primordials called home created the Abyss and the chaotic evil demons, and a group of angels who betrayed and killed their god became the first of the devils. Azer were dwarves who served the Fire Primordials, whilst Galeb Duhr were dwarves who served the Earth Primordials. The chief servants of the Primordials - the Titans and Giants - still exist in the world today whilst their masters are now absent.

I find the new mythology extremely compelling, blending elements of Greek and Norse mythology (as well as others that I'm less familiar with) to give a brilliant underpinning to the world. The recasting of Demons and Devils away from their strict "alignment based" role has not been universally approved, but I find it very compelling for my purposes.

This mythology has been expanded upon in later releases; it may be absent in your own take on the D&D worlds, but it works very well for the core set's base.

A Conclusion
At this point, after slightly more than a year since Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition's release, I've run about fifty sessions of the game and I have two groups either just approaching or now in the Paragon levels. It has been a fantastic experience. At this point, 4E at 13th level is displaying none of the flaws that 3E experienced at the higher levels: the mathematics underpinning the game seem to work quite well. I've not seen it played at the highest levels, however, so things may get less stable.

The game has changed. Characters are more competent at lower levels (although, from the vantage of the paragon levels, still quite weak). Everyone tends to be useful most of the time, rather than the Wizard being the most important character some of the time and dead weight for the rest of the game. Despite these changes, the game still feels very much like Dungeons & Dragons to me. You still roll a 20-sided die to hit your opponents, and you deal damage in hit points. There are other things going on, but the core of the game remains the same.

Will the game be perfect for everyone? No, of course not. Some fundamental assumptions of the game have changed. I believe that fighters, once the best choice for new players to play, are now slightly too complex and the ranger becomes the better new player's choice. The relationship between the rules and the simulation of the game world has also changed. However, if you are looking for a game of heroic fantasy, D&D 4E is an excellent game: approachable and possessing of astonishing breadth.

For those to whom 4E's assumptions do not appeal, then there are games such as the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook or the myriad of "retro-clones" that hearken back to an earlier D&D that may appeal. Choose the gaming experience that you would like.

For me, I spent eight years and many hundreds (thousands?) of hours with the 3rd edition D&D system, but now I find myself extremely happy with Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. The designers at Wizards of the Coast took a bold gamble with their redesign: one that, for me, has been successful.
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Simon Lundström
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Fantastic review. The game sounds like World of Warcraft. Cool, but a bit too combat-oriented for my taste.
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Nick Bah Doo
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Awesome review indeed!

I'm still on the fence. I think I will like the new system, but I'm not sure if I want to take the financial plunge ...
 
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Merric Blackman
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Nikku wrote:
Awesome review indeed!

I'm still on the fence. I think I will like the new system, but I'm not sure if I want to take the financial plunge ...


You might want to download this and give it a try:
http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/4dnd/dndtestdrive

That was the first adventure I ran for 4e. As I mentioned, it was a few sessions before we really got the hang of it (and the system really shines at the higher levels), but it may give you an idea of some of what 4e offers.

Cheers!
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Nick Bah Doo
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Thanks! I already looked at the Testdrive, read some rules, read lots of discussions and reviews, and I think the system is pretty good. We're a combat heavy group looking to shorten combat encounters and decreasing DM prep time (NPC/Monster stats mostly) would be welcome. I think 4.0 has a lot to offer here.

However, speaking for a group of players who are heavily invested in 3.5, we're not sure if it's that much better to take the plunge.
 
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Charles Donnell
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Really well written and informative review. I particularly appreciate the summary paragraphs and the simple advice that 4e may not be everyone's cup of tea.

I was on the fence with this version for a while, but have switched to 4e save for wrapping up the last 3.5 campaign I'm running. You have very succintly laid out most of the reasons for my conversion to 4e.
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William Collins
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Great job, Merric! I have played once so far and I feel very much the same as you. I enjoy reading the books (I have the gift set of the main core books) and look forward to playing some more in the future. I won't be running 4E (unless I find some way to update the Iron Kingdoms) but I *do* look forward to playing.

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Merric Blackman
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Nikku wrote:
Thanks! I already looked at the Testdrive, read some rules, read lots of discussions and reviews, and I think the system is pretty good. We're a combat heavy group looking to shorten combat encounters and decreasing DM prep time (NPC/Monster stats mostly) would be welcome. I think 4.0 has a lot to offer here.

However, speaking for a group of players who are heavily invested in 3.5, we're not sure if it's that much better to take the plunge.


To some extent, it depends on what levels you play in 3.5e. The designers talk about the "sweet spot" of play in 3.5e, which is pretty much from levels 5-12. At those levels, the play isn't too complicated, combat isn't too swingy, and all the classes contribute pretty much equally. Before then, PCs don't have enough hit points so "one shot kills" are quite likely - or the wizard can't do enough - beyond them the mathematics began to break down pretty fiercely.

Also, on your players. In my last 3.5e campaign, which went from 1st to 16th level, I had a couple of characters who managed to "game" the system so much that their ACs were incredibly high and no monster of their challenge rating could hit them. Meanwhile, the other PCs had ACs so low that any monster could hit them. The disparity between those PCs was just too much.

In our final session, everyone bar one player had a laptop and was doing their attack and damage rolls on it (due to handful of dice problems) and also ahead of time so the combats rolled by faster!

It was a great campaign, and that final session was incredible fun... but you could see the system creaking and groaning.

Initially with 4e, my players were somewhat taken aback by the lack of options - compared with the full release of 3.5e. The supplements (and especially their availability on the D&D Insider) have helped rectify that lack.

Cheers!
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Zimeon wrote:
Fantastic review. The game sounds like World of Warcraft. Cool, but a bit too combat-oriented for my taste.

Yep. For better or for worse, it's now become a pencil and paper simulation of a computer simulation of a role-playing game. :)
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Nikku wrote:
I'm still on the fence. I think I will like the new system, but I'm not sure if I want to take the financial plunge ...


Here's a quick suggestion list:

* Core rules set: $100. You can get it at 40% off with a Borders coupon. As Merric said, not all the 3rd edition races and classes are in the core rules set -- they're in the *next* one. Boo!

* Starter Set. $15. Only way to get counters, but comes with a lot of 'em.

* Tile Set: $10 each. If you just get the first tile set, you have enough basic tiles to play with.

* H1: Keep on the Shadowfell. It's a free download from the Wizard's site, with Quick Start rules. The poster maps from the published version aren't included, but the download has smaller versions of these maps.

I think the game becomes a money pit when you give in to the supplements, painted miniatures, and poster maps. If your group is of the DIY old-school and still uses wipe-off mats and dice to represent monsters, you're fine.

And if your group *likes* 3e, stay with it! It's still D&D!

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Anders Gabrielsson
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In the group I play with we're all quite happy with the changes. Session prep is much easier and quicker, the classes feel less restrictive and all characters are equally involved both in combat (though doing somewhat different things) and outside.

I definitely agree that the skill challenge system requires more work to make it fully functional, but it gives a basic idea that can easily be modified. And if you don't like it at all, there's nothing stopping you from using normal skill checks and giving out some XP for overcoming non-combat challenges on a more ad hoc basis.
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John Di Ponio
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Excellent job with the review!! I have been diving into 4ed and really enjoy it....I find it much easier to bring new players in and keep them interested.
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