Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"That felt like a very well put together board game"

I'm surprised to say that the above title pretty much sums up the reaction of my players to our 4E playtests. While I wouldn't go as far as he did and call it a boardgame, I have to say I found the new edition to be a mixed bag and (given the rest of the games on my shelves) ultimately disappointing.

First some background: I loved 3E when it came out because (IMO) it was far better than previous editions. Heck, adding skills to D&D made 3e worth the price of admission. :) time went on the various flaws of 3e became more and more apparent, and running it for several years ultimately led my group to break with the system and turn to some really high quality third party d20 systems.

From the moment WotC announced 4e, we did our best to be as neutral as possible towards it. My players don't pay attention to RPG company websites or discussion groups, so they stepped into 4th edition with a fresh perspective. As for me, I've done my best to avoid most of the vitriolic 4E threads and have tried to keep a balanced perspective while reminding myself to only judge the books after I had a chance to read them and play a few sessions.

Well, we finished two six hour sessions and boy did we find 4E underwhelming. When the sessions were over, one of my players said that he felt like he just got finished playing the HeroQuest boardgame with some roleplaying for flavor. (We had fun roleplaying, but frankly very little of that came from the system.)

IMO, the game is really well built and succeeds at what it aims to achieve. Combat was nicely streamlined, skill challenges are a step in the right direction (despite wacky DCs), and every PC being effective with balanced classes was really great... however it feels like a lot of the flavor that resonated with my group was absent. That, and we couldn't shake the feeling like we aren't part of WotC's core demographic anymore. Perhaps we are just getting old, but 4E went over with us like a lead balloon. My players noted that (just like with the nWoD) the new system appears significantly improved from the original... but the overall execution left us cold.

We were surprised that there weren't any non-combat powers. Heck, the powers section might as well be renamed "class-related combat shticks". Rituals are a nice addition to the game, but there are hardly any of them, and there are a lot of interesting spells from days gone by that are simply gone. (My players pointed out that there are no Charm Person or other subtle mind influencing powers amongst the rituals, and those powers with the "charm" keyword seem to involve dishing out psychic damage or influencing the immediate combat actions of others. Only a 29th level Warlock power comes close to Charm Person, and even that lasts just one turn. So much for mind influencing magic...

Another thing that left me scratching my head was that the vast majority of the available feats involved combat abilities. The only non-combat related ones seemed to be the few skill-oriented feats (Skill Focus, Jack of All Trades, etc.), and Linguist. That's about it. This is similar to the problem I had with feats in the last edition, although I warmed up to it after third party games came out with a variety of useful non-combat related feats. Some products added a wealth of non-combat feats which really added to my d20 games. (Dynasties and Demagogues really stands out here, but there are plenty more out there.) I was hoping 4e would have built off of this, but alas it wasn't to be.

When it comes to social interaction, it's pretty much the same as 3e. We have Bluff, Diplomacy and Insight (ie, Sense Motive). I was hoping that in the eight years since 3e was released, and with the huge number of third party d20 supplements out there, that there was enough good ideas to significantly improve D&D's social rules. Apparently not. :(

Oh well. I hope I don't come off as disparaging other people's fun with 4e, as I'm well aware that my taste in games change and that my opinion of 4e is very subjective. I'm positive there are a ton of people out there having fun with it, and I hope they have a great time playing it! Regardless, it's just apparently not for my group. :(

So it goes!

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