The Analog Gamer: Keep on the Shadowfell Impression
I’ve been talking about the upcoming revisions to Dungeons & Dragons for awhile now. Well the chance to finally test out the changes introduced with this new version arrived on May 20th in the form of the first 4th Edition module – Keep on the Shadowfell. I was one of the few lucky folks who had the module in hand before the release date but unfortunately coverage was embargoed until that point and well, life got in the way of getting this up the day it came out.
Before I jump into all the gory details about how the system works and how it plays let me first say that this is a very different game than its predecessor. Many of the same terms are used. There are still Hit Points, Armor Class and Feats, but some of the sacred cows of the D&D system are wearing new leather coats.
Be warned, this extra-long edition of The Analog Gamer might spoil some secrets about the forthcoming D&D game.
Keep on the Shadowfell is a well designed module. It comes with a nice thick cardstock cover containing a number of maps suitable for miniature game play and 2 booklets. The first book is a character folio that includes an overview of the basic 4th Edition rules as related to characters. The other is the DM booklet that contains an expanded version of the introductory rules aimed at running the game along with the full adventure itself.
The story told begins as the traditional “kill the kobolds” intro module and evolves into something a bit more nuanced and interesting. Some of the new story elements incorporated with the new rules are also introduced. Concepts like the Shadowfell, Dragonborn and the return of a certain undead Demon and his followers into mainstream D&D. The setting is generic to a point and could easily serve as the beginning of an adventure path taking players from 1st to 30th level.
The rules included in this introductory game are not quite detailed enough that I’d rush into running a game using these rules alone but they give a good indication as to the goal of the new revision. Browsing through the character descriptions is likely enough to scare die-hard D&D traditionalists. The character sheet might look familiar but for one thing it feels a lot different in its organization. Sure, the same old statistics are used at the root, but there are some new concepts that players will be unfamiliar with like the concept of a “bloodied” rating, the removal of the traditional saving throw system and the concept of racial and class powers in lieu of the class abilities and feats of 3.0/3.5.
My players were shocked by the comparably large number of hit points and the new defense mechanics of the game. Where old characters had an average of 6 hit points at the 1st level, none of the new characters had less than 20. Wizards and Clerics feel less complicated but also less versatile than in many previous versions of the game, though the Wizard character’s at-will Magic Missile attack brought a smile to the player’s face when he read it.
The addition of specific defenses in place of the old “save system” took a little getting used to as well but worked. Players now roll against a specific defense statistic rather than just physical damage represented by the Armor Class. Instead of the target of a spell making a Will save against a draining attack the attacker instead makes an attack vs. Will. Its a small mechanical change really but the terminology confused my veteran players at first.
Keep on the Shadowfell begins much like your traditional D&D published module. There are a few plot hooks that enterprising Dungeon Masters can easily expand upon to draw the band of characters into the overall story. I had an opportunity to run part of the adventure and of the three offered hooks, I chose to adapt the one surrounding a mysterious death cult that had begun traveling to the remote northern town of Winterhaven, and the task before the players was to uncover if the rumors of the cult’s activity was true and if so to squash the heathen worship before it caused bigger troubles.
It’s is an interesting story that would work fine in any version of Dungeons & Dragons. One thing it does well is introduce situations where the players will slowly gain an introduction to the general rules of the game. The first combat is basically straightforward for both the GM and players. Later encounters become more complicated of course and introduce traps, skill challenges and more tactically challenging encounters.
Numerous pages of text are devoted to helping GMs new to both the system and the job flesh out the module. Hints on how to run encounters, how to expand on characterization and ways to engage and challenge players stand out in the sidebars throughout the module and make this a good introductory lesson on what Dungeons & Dragons represents.
The new edition is definitely about cinematic action. Players no longer simply swing swords to hit foes they charge their weapons with Valiant Strikes that deal “radiant” energy in addition to the cold steel damage, they don’t simple sneak attack they make a Positioning Strike and move the target back with a smashing blow. There is a lot of flash to the game now that reminded me in some ways of the combat presented in Malhavoc Press’s Iron Heroes rules and Wizard’s Tome of Battle.
One change noted in the rules summary is that encounters and monsters are now balanced against a default party size of 5 player characters. 3.5 used 4 as the default number so that set expectations that the encounters would tend to be larger in size overall. The initial encounter in the module, an ambush of the traveling players by a cadre of Kobolds showed this to indeed be the case.
Before my stalwart players knew what hit them three different sorts of kobolds began their assault. The five adventurers faced down 5 Kobold Minions, 2 Kobold Dragonshields and a crafty Kobold Slinger. The jump immediately into combat gave an excellent opportunity to introduce the very different combat mechanics behind the new system and brought to light one of the most risky changes in approach, one that will probably alienate many of the game’s long term fans.
4th Edition D&D apparently is also more like an expanded miniature game. The setup of characters, encounters and everything felt much more like a combat game written with some extra RPG fluff for good measure. Many players will immediately groan about this change but it makes perfect sense from the position of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.
The most successful products in the D&D line over the last few years have not been the D&D game books I’d bet. I suspect instead it was the skirmish oriented collectible miniature games and Wizards seems quick to make them a necessary part of the core D&D experience. These new rules change the focus of the game from one where miniatures are a luxury accessory to one where it is assumed all players are using miniatures and maps to play out their adventures.
Character abilities now are expressed in terms of spaces and squares instead of feet or meters. While it’s simple enough to convert these to real world measure the problem comes when trying to visualize some of the game’s new powers – because they really are designed to be used on a grid map system and not esoterically described to players like in previous versions of the game.
It’s in many ways this change is a return to the origins of Dungeons & Dragons as a fantasy battle ruleset created to add fireballs to medieval miniatures. The Chainmail roots are showing everywhere in this approach and I can’t help but be a bit shocked. That return to tabletop tactical miniature gameplay however is not a return to older game design where endless statistical charts and tables ruled the day because along with the miniature focus the game also feels amazingly like a tabletop MMORPG.
Encounters are designed with tactical information, notes on monster strategy and reactions as well. Characters and monsters share a number of abilities that translate easily into the real-time world of MMO’s. At-will powers remind me of the 3-5 second recharge skills in MMO games, per-encounter powers reflect the 2-5 minute recharge skills and of course the “daily” powers closely model the long term recharge skills. The vernacular and strategy players apply in their World of Warcraft games can easily be translated to this new system and I have to believe that is not by mistake.
When composing my player group I wanted to test the concept that this was a simpler, more “new player” friendly game so I recruited a team of 5 players. Two of the players were long time veterans of D&D and many other games. Two were novice D&D players with experience only with the 3.5 edition of the game and finally the last member was a complete and utter newbie to the entire concept of an RPG – someone who had never played or considered playing an RPG.
Learning the system was fairly simple for the veterans, as expected – though the similar usage of terminology caused some confusion initially. The novices seemed slow to pick it up but were more willing to accept the changes and as I expected the new player was still totally lost.
She commented that the game was still very confusing and the unfamiliar terms didn’t make much sense though by the end of the first game session she said she felt comfortable enough to continue playing – I suspect that the game was less the reason than the social bonds she had with the group.
I’m not quite sure I’m enamored of the new focus but I’m willing to play it out to see where the game ends up. The funniest quote from one of the veteran players during the game crystallizes some of my initial feelings about 4th Edition D&D.
“It’s kinda fun, but only if I forget that it’s D&D. If I think of this as D&D I get a little angry. If it were [called] anything but D&D I think I could accept it better.” The other veteran player nodded and added ”I mean its a fun miniature game but I’m not sure I like the miniature requirement. I play RPGs to use my imagination not to play with dolls. My imagination doesn’t need the help, thanks.”
We’ll have to see just how interested long term players will be to adopt this new system and I’ll be holding out my final judgment until I have a chance to digest the big picture.