Commentary on 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons

I played D&D as a kid, and my kid and I have played a little 3ed, though obviously, I don’t have the time to pore over the volumes of rules like I did decades ago. So, I was really looking forward to 4ed. The idea that you can just pick-up and play without having to decipher lots of fine print and sub-rules and supplements and so on, this seemed like a good idea. (Although, frankly, the mastery of D&D minutiae is most certainly the appeal for some geeks.)

Surprisingly, I’ve had to literally force my way through the Player’s Handbook. It’s all so … boring. Part of the fun of D&D (for me, as a DM) was reading through all the possibilities. 3ed had this in spades: You could do just about anything, and it gave a lot of room to go in interesting and unique directions.

4ed, meanwhile, maps everything out. Everything is classified in terms of how often you can use it, and you add this power or that feat at each level according to a unified formula. It reminds me more of Diablo than anything.

I’m not being dismissive, either. Really, 4ed is an impressive piece of work, streamlining and cleaning up a very messy game. I give it three (of five) stars because it’s so easy to read and has big type with every detail clerly spelled out. (I don’t like the artwork but that’s my own taste.) It will surely be easier for people to casually pick up and play. What I can’t figure out is why they–or really, why I would want to play it.

I gather that a lot of issues with 3ed came about because of pickup and competition games. There are such things as “powergamers” and “rules lawyers” and they found ways to drag the game down. And, of course, not all classes in previous editions were equally powerful, if you crunched the numbers. (It never occurred to me that this was a problem, but then I do everything I can to keep my players from focusing on the numbers.)

So, I guess 4ed is good in that regard. Every character boils down to one of four combat roles, and all the features they can acquire are centered around those roles, one of which they’ll likely specialize in. (It’s probably not as boring as I just made it sound there.)

Now, I run a very DM-centered game, and 4ed diminishes that greatly. The races have a back story which implies a pre-made, common world; Clerics pick from a variety of bland, pre-made deities; The magic items are listed in the PHB and a player can acquire them easily based on level, which implies a world where magic becomes banal at some level.

This is great for a pick-up game, I’m sure. And of course, the DM who doesn’t care for all this can do as he pleases. But as you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I can ignore the two gratuitous elf races, drop the half-demon and half-dragon races, bring back the full nine alignments, assume that stuff that I miss, like gnomes, druids and illusionists will be back with the PHB II, bring back real multiclassing and prestige classes…” But at some point, one wonders, “Why 4ed at all?”

Here’s a fun fact: In AD&D (what’s now referred to as 1ed), you rolled a d20 to attack and checked against a table to see if you hit. Then the monster rolled a d20, etc. Magic-users would use a spell, thieves would try to sneak attack, etc. But that was combat in the original. It was said to represent one minute of fighting, including all the feints, dodges, parries, tumbling, etc. It was detail free, basically, except as the DM described the action. There were no critical hits, there were very tight minimum and maximum ACs. There was no distinction between “touching” and “causing damage” when you hit; it was really very loose aand vague.

Of course, the whole thing was a deliberate simplification. And since D&D’s roots were in wargaming, with measures and calculations, you can safely assume the creators weren’t afraid of complexity. (I run 3ed like this, despite the absurdly extensive combat rules.)

4ed, on the other hand, is basically a tactical board game. The rules–I mean, all the rules–are pretty much set up to facilitate putting figurines on a grid and having them combat in turn, taking equal amounts of time, doing roughly similarly powered things, and measuring everything in terms of causing damage.

Hell, you could easily put the character’s actions into a computer program and let the players use hotkeys to select which power they want–and I’m sure they’re working on it.

A lot of people seem to love the new rules, and it’s not that I looked at the changes and couldn’t see exactly why they changed them and why that was a good thing (except for the elimination of half the alignments). I get it. I really do get it.

It just leaves me cold.

And I suppose there’s no Limbo any more, either.

No, this isn’t a religious post. But, content warning: It is highly nerdy. Up there with the rare computer programming post I make. But moreso.

The new rules for Dungeons and Dragons came out. I played D&D during my second decade of life, stopping not really because it wasn’t fun but because I was busy and the people I played with all went off to college. For a guy like me, fascinated with mythology, lover of gaming and gaming systems, and a prolific writer and cartographer, D&D was an excellent outlet.

Now, truth be told, the original D&D (or Advanced D&D, as it was called, to distinguish itself both from its roots and its cheaper, less time-intensive, and less parent frightening sibling) was not what you would call a great gaming system. Even calling it good is stretching it a bit.

It was, however, good enough. And it was the first to make a splash (and the only one to really make a splash outside of the gaming nerd circle). So it is that D&D is the gold standard by which role-playing games are compared.

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast took over from the colossally poorly run TSR, and produced a new set of rules, the third edition. In a fit of nostalgic interest, I picked up those books and examined them for what they changed. (Also, I knew The Boy would take to it. Playing D&D was a prime motivator in getting him to learn to read.)

Now, about eight years after the third edition was released, Wizards has released a fourth edition, even more streamlined from the third.

This is not a bad thing, really. One of the things that makes D&D so impossibly nerdy is the stacks of rules and stats one has to manage. The new set of books is somewhat thinner, with much bigger, clearer print, and lots of boldface type. (Partly reflecting the aging of gamers, perhaps? The Golden Age of D&D was 30 years ago, eyes must certainly be failing.)

But here’s what prompted this post: AD&D from the start had the concept of alignment. Alignment was the ethical and moral orientation of the beings in the universe. Good and evil, for example, was along one axis. Law and chaos were along the other. Also, you could be neutral along one or both axes. (If you’re counting at home, that makes nine alignments.) These were not abstract concepts in the game: There were gods and forces akin to gravity that were associated with these alignments. Changing alignment was a cataclysmic event that could occur due to misbehavior, treachery or magic. It’d be like changing your blood type.

As I’ve read commentary over the years, “alignment” was always much maligned. Real people, of course, don’t have alignments. They have points-of-view. They have goals in conflict with another.

But, what makes fantasy fun, is that there is evil, you can spot it pretty easily, and you don’t have to feel guilty about kicking it’s ass. Really: Humanize orcs, and Lord of the Rings becomes impossibly jingoistic.

In D&D the system was highly nuanced without being particularly burdensome, and resulted in a most unusual cosmology: The Outer Planes (like Heaven and Hell, essentially) consisted of sixteen different universes populated by beings of a particular alignment. Besides Heaven and Hell, for good and evil, there were such colorful places as Arcadia, representing Lawful Neutral, and populated by ant-like beings of supreme order, Mechanus (also Lawful Neutral), populated by geometrically-shaped creatures known as Modrons, who lived in an impossibly ordered society, or Limbo, the plane of Chaotic Neutral, so unstable as to be populated only by the insane.

These made good potential plot hooks. An entire fantasy realm based on these Outer Planes was created called “Planescape”. One of the great computer RPGs of all time was based on it. That game showed that even in the highly artificial structure of a fantasy “afterlife”, you could ask interesting philosophical questions. (After all, you couldn’t really be killed. You were already dead! Where would you go? Detroit?)

Startlingly, the fourth edition halves the number of alignments, allowing only Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned (that’s the half-alignment–it’s not even Neutral), Evil and Chaotic Evil. This is sort of the gaming equivalent to the Catholic Church removing Limbo. In fact, it does perchance remove Limbo, since there is no Chaotic Neutral anymore.

Now, maybe it doesn’t remove anything. After all, even in previous versions there were more Outer Planes than official D&D alignments (like Neutral Good, but with Lawful tendencies), so there’s no saying for sure that those have been removed from the D&D cosmology, and perhaps the streamlining helps in the gameplay. (I’m not far enough along in the rules to tell.)

I can’t believe I actually wrote this and am about to post it publicly. I don’t even play D&D any more (except a small message board game at kingdomrpg.com). But it was a compelling idea. Check out the Wiki page, where they list the alignments of other fictional characters (some of which I would disagree with). It’s up there with “Who would win in a fight against Superman and Batman?” for nerd discussions.

OK, now back to The Movies….