I promised my brother that I’d talk about my thoughts on D&D4 after playing through a demo some time ago, but I kept putting it off. He probably doesn’t care any more, since his group is playing D&D4 now, but I don’t want to be a liar, so I’m going to post something now before even more time passes.
Now, to be clear up front, nobody in our group had played D&D4 yet, except maybe Steve (the GM running the demo). A couple of us have the first set of core books, but hadn’t really looked at them yet. The demo we were playing was the one put out by Wizards of the Coast for the Players Handbook 2 launch events, so it was built for 11th level characters. Not necessarily ideal for folks brand new to the game, but it certainly gave us a feel for how the characters work after they’ve been around a while.
I think that D&D4 makes for an interesting approach to the game, and it can certainly be fun to play, if you’re playing in the fashion intended by the designers, which is basically to concentrate on missions or dungeon delves, and not really on the time between them. However, I find that the whole system of powers for everyone, and a concentration on types of roles governing those power groups (strikers get up close and hit people, controllers shape the battlefield, etc.) makes for a remarkably bland experience. Yes, I said bland.
Even though everyone has all these cool powers to use all the time, and I like cool powers, too, they don’t really feel all that different between the various classes. I had no real sense of “that is so cool”-ness about one type of power over another. Sure, the specifics of the powers are different, where strikers are pretty specifically one-target kinda hitters, while controllers maybe have some area effect abilities, but all the effects seem so similar when you get down to the basics of things: more damage, maybe a position shift, maybe a condition change. That guy can do it at range, while this other guy has to hit you with his sword first.
I even felt that there are way too many things that let you shift your position or your opponent’s, so that it felt a lot like you’re sliding around on ice for some reason half the time. I don’t know if that’s a PH2 thing, or inherent in powers over all, but while it was very useful in the combats, it was kind of annoying, too.
I do like the fact that everyone has powers to use, even the fighters, so that nobody is entirely dependent on magic items, as older D&D fighters were at higher levels. I like that magic users always have some basic power to use, so that they aren’t useless once they’ve used all their best spells. But when everyone has powers, and all the powers are roughly the same types of things, and they’re all roughly the same capability, everything totally ends up feeling very similar, and that ends up feeling bland.
Now, outside of combat, they also have this thing called skill challenges, where the adventure has some kind of challenge that must be overcome by successfully making skill rolls. Get enough successful skill checks before you get too many failures (both set by the challenge designer), and you succeed, otherwise you fail. This is a pretty ingenious way to incorporate certain types of skills into an adventure at certain points, and I can see it being quite useful for certain types of challenges, but I didn’t like the way it was used in the demo adventure we played. Basically, in our case, the skill challenge was there so that no role-playing would be required, and so the GM wouldn’t have to decide if a particular effort was good enough to get the job done–instead, just roll until you succeed over all, or fail, and you get (or don’t) the info available. That irks me, because it prevents a clever bit of role-playing from overcoming a mostly social (in this case) challenge. There’s no reward for cleverness. (Let me clarify, the challenge was actually in two parts, the first physical, which was fine, and the second social, which I didn’t like.)
That would normally lead me into bitching about the lack of non-encounter-oriented skills in the new D&D4, which takes away a bunch of what I like in various role-playing games. It might also lead me into bitching about how much I dislike the new skill picks system for skills. But I’m not going to get into that, because it would take a while, and didn’t really come up from the demo we ran, anyway. Instead, I’m going to conclude this post with a quick wrap up.
In the end, I mostly enjoyed playing the D&D4 demo, and some day perhaps I’ll play in a game that starts at 1st level, and builds up the way you normally would. Play in a game that concentrates on encounters, as intended, and I suspect you can have a lot of fun breathing your own life into the powers and such your character can do. However, I really don’t have any particular need to ever play D&D4 again, as I get a lot of fun playing things between encounters, not just during the missions themselves. For me, D&D4 is an excellent piece of focused and targeted design, that results in a type of RPG that I’m not really interested in playing most of the time.
There you go bro, sorry it took me so long to get around to it.