Understanding 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 March 2014, 6:23 am
On this blog I discuss all sorts of games that I play, from pen & paper role-playing games to computer games on various platforms. And sometimes the comparison of very different games, or making links between the discussions about those very different games, can be enlightening. That caused me to rethink my position on 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

The thing is that for me "4th edition" is not just a label, but really a 4th version of something I know. I played through all the previous editions. Mostly 1st edition AD&D and 2nd edition, a bit less 3rd edition, and now 4th edition since two years as a DM. I also played a bunch of other pen & paper roleplaying games from other companies. Thus my way to play 4th edition D&D is not based solely on what is written in the 4E rule books, but is based on over 30 years of experience with pen & paper role-playing games.

Pen & paper role-playing systems all have holes in their rules. Different systems cover different aspects of the game better or less well. Early systems, and that means especially early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, did not talk a lot about the actual playing of a role, in the sense of interactive story-telling. Yes, there is some sort of story in an adventure module like the Tomb of Horrors or Keep on the Borderlands (Caves of Chaos). But the bulk of such an adventure was always a huge dungeon full of traps and monsters. It was some years later that modules like the UK series or Ravenloft started to put more of an emphasis on the story and the played interaction between player characters and NPCs.

Some people preferred that sort of interactive story-telling to the hack'n'slay ways of old. Other companies developed RPG rules systems which put a lot more emphasis on the story (and were often much less detailed on tactical combat rules). Personally I came to the conclusion that it would be best to mix the two, somewhere around the 50:50 mark. And I found that the "best practices" of role-playing are easily transferable from one system to another. For example in the 13th Age rules system there are very nice rules on character creation which encourage a player to come up with "One Unique Thing" about their character, like "I am the lost heir to the fallen dwarven kingdom". That rule works for pretty much every pen & paper system, and I'll certainly use it for my next 4E campaign.

The consequence of all that is that the 4E campaign that I am playing is not "4E as written", but is the 4E rules augmented with 30+ years of experience and rules from other systems to plug the holes that 4th edition has. Thus if somebody tells me "you can't role-play in 4E", I disagree, my campaign certainly isn't like that.

But when we recently discussed MMORPG design, I said that players tend to follow the incentives that the game gives them. So I find it important for a MMORPG that it doesn't make one path (like questing) far more rewarded than everything else, because that leads to everybody following that one path like a herd of lemmings. While you *can* do other things in MMORPGs than following that path, the game often lets you know quite clearly that "you shouldn't do that", by giving you no or inadequate rewards and thereby discouraging you from doing anything else than the lemming path. And then I realized that while maybe not expressed that way, the problem that people have with 4th edition is pretty much the same: If you don't have the experience and "best practices" of role-playing, you would probably end up playing 4E as written in the rules and adventure modules, and then it becomes just a series of encounters with not enough role-playing in between. The 4E rule books and adventure modules give no incentives or encouragement to role-play, so if you don't resist the general "pull" of the system, you end up doing something too linear and boring.

Now even for 4E enough years have passed that there are adventures with very different qualities here. The first 4E adventure Keep on the Shadowfell is horrible regarding NPCs, and does a very bad job of introducing them and making their motivations clear to the players. The "story" of Keep on the Shadowfell ends up being "we fight through a dungeon and kill the boss mob at the end". A more recent adventure like the Madness at Gardmore Abbey we are currently playing is already a lot better in that respect. But still I found myself modifying stuff in the Gardmore Abbey adventure, to improve the role-playing part of it. And the presentation of 4E adventures always has one part of the adventure being page after page of encounters, while any information about story and NPCs is written elsewhere, and it isn't always evident on how to mix that story part with the tactical encounters.

I remain convinced that of the many pen & paper role-playing systems I have played, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons has the best tactical combat rules and the best class balance. Which for me and my group makes it the perfect rules system, because we can fill the holes on the story-telling side with rules from other systems. It would be much harder to play a story-centric system and try to add the tactical combat rules of 4E to it than the other way around. Having said that, I think that 4E Dungeons & Dragons is probably not a good system to learn pen & paper role-playing games with: The tactical rules are complex, and there isn't enough information in the rule books to assure good role-playing. Having said that, this isn't edition-specific. Previous editions were just as bad to teach people how to role-play, and 5th edition appears to be only a bit better, with rules like the "background" instead of free choices of skills and talents.
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