The Analog Gamer: New Editions

Seven days have passed. Seven days of joy and fear, terror and epiphany. The RPG Emperor truly does have new clothes, and it looks like they fit.

While I’ve been anticipating the release of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (something that is not noted on the products themselves BTW) I’ve thought long and hard about how I’d review it once it finally got here. A few weeks back the world got its first chance to play the new rules thanks to the release of H1 Keep on the Shadowfell but it was hard to gauge the game or its focus fairly just from that bite size exposure.

Now, finally, we have the full rule picture at our disposal and I’ve decided it does little good to pick and poke at the rules, to run down a basic list of likes and dislikes when describing this product so instead I’m going to discuss the experience of playing and the impression I have of the foundation 4E sets going forward for the game.

What D&D 4E is not should be discussed first.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is not a band-aid slapped on the expansive core of its previous versions. This is not “D&D 3.75 The Money Grab Edition”. The core mechanic may look familiar but there has been a large effort made to differentiate, streamline and Yes, even simplify some of the aspects of D&D games past.

Dungeons & Dragons is not a miniature game, though it feels like one and is geared to be sold to complement the D&D Miniature game and its components. Miniatures are the core visual and game aid for this edition, a fact the game does not shy away from.

The key point for naysayers however is to remember that no one says you have to use D&D Minis to represent your protagonists and their foes.. pennies work just as well. The key concept though is that D&D is at its heart a tactical game with “fantastic worlds and epic powers”.

What is D&D 4E?

Well I can only speak for myself here but in my limited time with the rules and in my limited play experiences I think its safe to say that this edition of 4E is more dynamic than any that has come before. The focus is on cinematic action, bold powers and balanced challenges that can ignite the imagination of the players and dungeon masters alike. Games played using the new rules will not immediately be better just because they are different, but the tools given to everyone around the table to spice up their games – beyond the traditional “I swing at the orc with my +2 longsword” – are pretty impressive.

Sure you can swing that rusted metal but why not use the “Smashing Blow” to hit the target with such force he is driven back and dazed? From a DM perspective I have to say that the power system makes my descriptive work during combat a lot easier. No matter how creative, I suspect that a lot of good storytellers dropped the flourish after awhile when running encounters and its nice to see the system make it easier to invigorate and excite a combat description beyond statistics and position.

Playing the game also feels simpler at the basic level. There are still the same numbers of complex acronyms and esoteric insider math formulas but they are fairly simple to describe and teach. Powers may limit player choice in some cases but they promote a better sense of group play and teamwork, something missing in many previous versions of the game’s mechanics.

The three books feel a bit incomplete but only when compared to previous expectations. There are new core classes and races and some favorites have supposedly been relegated to later iterations of the core rulebooks but the races and classes in this tome are pretty well fleshed out in detail. The risk is that Wizards won’t churn out the support content fast enough to hold over those who are dedicated to the previous status quo of races like Half-Orcs or classes like Bards or Monks until those classes see the light of day.

The single most impressive part of this new setup for me is the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. Old pros will likely gloss over much of its content, but hands down this is one of the best books yet written about how to create, run and sustain a fantasy RPG. The rules may be tied to the new edition but the introductory advice for how to learn, play and teach the game are very well written.

I don’t know if a pure “RPG Virgin” could pick up this book and run the complex elements of the system without some mentoring but the more philosophical discussions about games, gamers and the act of creating an RPG session are pretty inspiring.

I entered into this discussion of the new game system months ago with an optimistic outlook and an open mind. I’ve encountered my own personal bias against some of the changes and questioned the intent of many of them but through it all I think I’ve realized that while this is not the D&D I’m used to, its a system I think I could get used to.

We’re at that like stage in our relationship… who knows if it’ll flower into love, but I’m willing to stick it out.

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