Ah, Grandaddy D&D. You hardly look a day older than ancient. You are famous for being (rightly or not) the quintessential RPG; the nerdiest nerd in the herd; the gawkiest geek of the gaggle. How many iterations has it been since Gary Gygax and TSR?
Many, many, many…
D&D is a different animal these days than it was when I was a kid. Some of those changes are good—there are a LOT fewer charts to consult, for example, and the system itself has slimmed down (plethora of books notwithstanding). I think that the mechanics have been greatly simplified, and that’s a great thing. Really, there are few things more frustrating than to have to step out of a battle to look at columns and rows of numbers.
4e enumerates character combat abilities more extensively than previous versions. So, for example: in D&D 3.5e, you have your fighter. He has an axe. You roll one dice to find out whether you hit or not; and if you hit, you roll a dice to find out how much damage you did. The same thing goes for 4e, but in addition to smacking your enemy with an axe, your attack may have additional properties: you may be able to push the enemy a square, or you may be able to get a second attack on a different enemy nearby. All good, right?
Well, right, depending on the type of game you want to run. The abilities bestowed on characters via their class are one of the things that can work against 4e by making the game less-playable in mindspace. A battle grid (a physical representation of the field of combat) is almost essential to the game in order for players to take advantage of their abilities.
By enumerating characters’ abilities, the system tends to play a little inflexible. This is actually one of the selling points of D&D’s Human race—while other races can pick two standard combat abilities, the human race can pick three, maximizing their combat options.
If a DM isn’t careful, the game can wind up feeling a heck of a lot like an expansive board game.
That said, 4e plays a LOT better than I initially thought it would. Allowing characters to fill niches makes for very clear combat direction: your fighter is the guy who takes damage and protects the team; your wizard is the guy who controls the battle field; the thief sneaks in to deal heavy damage to a single foe; and the cleric leads it all by boosting abilities and keeping everyone alive. The exchange of flexibility for greater mechanical clarity and simplicity isn’t BAD; and from what I understand, the DM support manuals make encounter creation a breeze in comparison to earlier editions.
Next time: IRON HEROES! All of the danger, and none of the magic!