Barbara and I are on a trip to the northeast from our home in Colorado. We spent five nights in Boston, where we found time to get together twice on OpenRPG to play in our main online D&D session with Lane and Zach. On the sixth day, we drove to Albany to meet our friend Sara and her family. Sara just had a baby (her second) via C-section on Monday of this week, but three days later she was home and ready for her weekly D&D game with her husband Scott and their friends. Since she knew Barbara and I liked D&D, she invited us to join them for the evening.
The game was first edition D&D, which we’ve never played before. I found a document online called OSRIC, which seems to be an attempt to build an open, freely available rules system that more or less mirrors D&D first edition. I glanced at OSRIC a little bit, but didn’t spend much time on it. When we arrived at Sara’s place (and the baby is adorable, by the way!) and got ready to start playing, I chatted for a few minutes with Shawn, the DM. He explained that, since all we have really played so far is Fourth Edition, we haven’t really played Dungeons and Dragons – we’ve just played a miniatures game. He’s definitely an edition purist, and not at all a fan of Magic: the Gathering (a game I played for years, though I’ve pretty much replaced it with D&D now), which he sees as being related to Fourth Edition. Fair enough – I’m always up for learning something new!
Barbara and I would be playing the characters of Ert and Bernie, who are hired henchmen of the main party. We were brothers, a half-orc and a half-elf (apparently our mom got around). We were only paid to carry stuff, and would defend ourselves if need be, but weren’t looking to get into the fray. The game session lasted about four hours, of which we spent about three hours goofing around and joking with the group. It was fun, and we fit right in.
The gaming itself, I have to say, was not meaningfully different from what we’re used to in Fourth Edition. Sure, we didn’t use minis to show where our characters were standing on a map, but that didn’t feel like a big deal. We only got into combat a couple of times, and the flow of combat was more or less what I was expecting. Now, the specific numbers are wildly different from Fourth Edition. Our wizard had four hit points, and our barbarian had a massive 16. Armor classes are the opposite of what we’re used to (lower ACs make you harder to hit), and when you roll to hit a bad guy, the DM has to look up a table to see, based on your class, whether your attack hits or not. There were some occasions where I felt like some of the things that exist in Fourth Edition would have helped, such as a nature or history check here or there, but those are minor quibbles. The battles were a little underwhelming – usually just one or two bad guys, with nothing more exciting than swinging a sword or shooting a crossbow bolt going on – but I’m guessing that’s just because those were the encounters that happened to come up this time around. The role playing was the same, and just as fun.
My guess is that old-school players don’t like Fourth Edition largely because it’s entirely possible to play Fourth Edition without any role playing. You could play it as just a game where you move tokens around a board and play cards that make something happen (your powers). You don’t HAVE to play it this way, though, and we don’t – we emphasize role playing, creative thinking, etc. It’s way more fun that way.
Another complaint of Shawn’s is that all of the Fourth Edition classes are equivalent to one another in a lot of ways. The impact of a first-level at-will power is going to be pretty similar across various classes, as will a third-level encounter power, etc. He feels that the only differences are in the flavor text (one is a wizard casting a spell that causes a missile of force to hit an enemy while another is a rogue throwing a rock at an enemy using a sling, and so on). First of all, I disagree somewhat here – there are actual mechanical differences, especially in daily and utility powers, but I do agree that the game is built to be balanced so that you don’t have one class’s abilities totally outshining another’s. I actually like the balance, though – if you want to be a wizard, great! You have useful things to do at all times. Cleric? No problem! Whatever you want to be, you’ll be able to do something interesting.
I’ve heard of earlier editions as having the “linear warriors, quadratic wizards” phenomenon, where wizards are pathetically weak at low levels and crazy powerful at high levels, while warriors are pretty good at any level. I think Fourth Edition gets away from that, and this is a good thing in my opinion.
So, D&D is D&D as far as I can see. You role play, you fight stuff, you have fun. The details differ, but the underlying game is the same.
I think your last paragraph is spot on. There is nothing in 4e to stop me from shouting out words that rhyme with “Maqq” and being the most clueless barbarian in the realm. That’s called “roleplaying.”
I will note that I did see a RP difference between editions the other day. Someone playing a bard asked the DM, “So if I perform here at the tavern tonight, how well do I do, and how much money do I make?” With the collapse of skills in 4e, there’s not an easy mechanic for a lot of skills that were used (in 3.x) to enhance the roleplaying. Can you work around it? Sure. Was it nice when the system was robust enough to give you the framework? Well, until it was broken (“ZOMG! I have Use Magical Device with 30 ranks, so I can cast Wiz spells from a wand better than a wizard!!”), definitely.
I think 4e brings D&D around back to its roots – not roleplaying roots, but wargaming roots. There is a stress on tactical combat movement that isn’t in the original AD&D game. Some like it, some don’t. And those who don’t are upset that their brand loyalty has been entrusted to a system they feel doesn’t provide much support except to combat situations.
@Karl: Those are some good, thoughtful comments, and I see your point. I know what you mean about the collapse of skills – I played a little bit of third edition, and it’s definitely different now. But you also were correct when you said you could work around it. If I’m the DM and my Bard wants to know how much money he made while performing, I’d probably do a simple Charisma check and use that to decide. The DM is mighty!
I agree that there is much more stress on combat movement in 4e, and I personally like it, so it’s easy for me to say, “Hey, what’s the problem?” But it’s also true that there’s nothing stopping players from sticking with an old edition (hey, it’s cheaper!) and just picking whatever they like from 4e.
Hmm, my thoughts on what I’d do if I didn’t like the tactical movement feel like they should be their own post. Thanks for sparking the idea!