We realize that you might be tired by now by the fact that the roleplaying section of the Big Bad Blog seems to do nothing but talk about the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
However, it is, for the moment, all we are playing.
Over the past four months, your blogger has had his first opportunity to play in the Fourth Edition as a PC, rather than a DM. Truth be told, this is the first real 4E experience for us. As a DM, we used the 4E mechanics for conflict resolution, but the game itself was imagined independent of the system.
For this new game, however, the DM has only ever played 4E – no other roleplaying experience was present. The adventure we have been playing was published by Wizards of the Coast. There are few to no house rules.
It is fourth edition in, pretty much, its purest form.
Which means that it is my duty as a blogger to give you my take on how the game feels from this side of the screen.
It can feel old school
In the introductory portion of the game, I was surprised by how light the mechanics felt. With a first-time DM and a relatively inexperienced group of players (aside from myself) feeling out the first few steps of a new game, I was expecting that all the annoying attributes of a combat-oriented mechanic bearing down on my play.
That did not happen at all.
Perhaps I should not be surprised. It is still a role playing game, and the introductory bits in which the players are meeting each other and feeling each other (and the NPCs) out is instinctively role-heavy. It’s hard for a mechanic to get in the way.
And as inexperienced as the group might be, they are pretty fantastic. The problems occur when the mechanics get heavy and the group’s inexperience shows as they have difficulty navigating the world of dice, bonuses, penalties, and so on. I probably should have expected this part of the game to go well.
But I was nervous. It went well, anyways. The group become a party, and some cohesion is slowly forming.
The introductory sessions felt like an old fashioned D&D game.
It can really bog down
In most games, there’s a point in the combat sequence where the fight is over, but the combat is ongoing. There is no longer any suspense about who is going to win. There is no longer any strategy that needs to be executed in order to win. It becomes a dice game.
Move around the table, rolling a d20, until (as a group) you have rolled 15 or better five times.
Boring, at least to me. Once upon a time it would not have been. I’m pretty sure I sat in my room alone rolling dice for an entire evening several times during my childhood. But I got over it, and it’s certainly not how I would choose to spend an afternoon with friends today.
Whether it’s the nature of 4E, the relative inexperience around the game table, or I had just forgot this part of the roleplaying game, I don’t know. But it bores the hell out of me.
On top of that is the never-ending dungeon which is a stack of fights, one on top of another. Thanks to the good designers of Wizards of the Coast, our group has now spent two entire sessions exploring this particular dungeon – by which I mean fighting zombies, goblins and zombie goblins (by which I mean rolling dice) – with nary a moment designed to flex those gaming muscles in which we play our roles.
I have come to enjoy the combat in fourth edition. It is interesting in and of itself (until it bogs down at the end), and I wish the bad guys would just do the decent thing and die (or surrender). But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
While I am willing to write this off as just being a poorly written adventure in this respect, it is hard to look at the structure of the game – the mix of encounter and daily powers, number of healing surges, and so on – and not imagine that the game designers did not anticipate this very situation.
It’s a super hero game
So the fourth edition has strengths and weaknesses, as any game does. But the strangest thing about it is that it is not a fantasy roleplaying game, but a super hero game.
This is not an original Big Bad Blog thought, but I have no idea where I read that previously or who should be credited with this observation.
The game works best when thought of as a superhero game in a fantasy context. It does not lend itself to a gritty style of fantasy. It is not your Tolkienesque high fantasy. As with any RPG, you could conceivably stuff it into one of those boxes, but it wasn’t made for it. It is decidedly not the Dungeons and Dragons I grew up with, where the PCs are a small band of adventurers doing the best they can in a fantastic and dangerous world.
No. We have super powers, every one of us. Even at first level, we have super powers. My character background does not read like any background I have written or read for and D&D game before – it reads more like a superhero origin story.
Here’s an Eladrin. He gets in a bit of trouble. Then a radioactive spider bit him, and now he’s suddenly Spidereladrin.
Not really – my character is much closer to Nightcrawler than he is to Spiderman, but he is a superhero (not an adventurer), as are the other members of his party. His history does read more like an origin story than a background, and his decisions are inherently coloured by the fact that he is otherworldly and special, rather than just a guy with a sword.
Again, this is neither good nor bad, but it is definitely different.
It is easy to see how old school D&D folk like me get very bent out of shape over this edition of the game. When I think of D&D – when I go out to play D&D – I get a certain set of expectations in my mind. These expectations are wide-ranging, but they certainly don’t involve a Marvel Superheroes story set against a Tolkien backdrop.
It’s like that scene in Return of the King (the movie version) where Legolas does his crazy elephant-slide thing. Legolas here is not the character from the books brought to life on the big screen, but instead some re-imagined super-powered version of the same.
And that’s what you get when you play 4E.
So whoever originally pointed this out, thank you. I’d probably be a lot more frustrated if you didn’t write about gaming.
Photo by your very own Mr. Topp. Available larger here.