D&D Next playtest results and opinions

Since the launch of the public D&D Next playtest on May 24, I have been diligently trying out the game. I ran one session for my regular group of friends at home (home group), one session for a small group of players I know via play at the Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS group), and two sessions for my Friday night online group (once the prohibition against testing over the internet was dropped). All four sessions were with me as the DM, so I have not yet experienced D&D Next from the player’s side of the screen. I was using the Caves of Chaos adventure for all sessions.

Throughout the whole process, I’ve been keeping in mind that this is just the initial public playtest, not the final game, and I’ve encouraged my players to do the same.

The home group stormed the kobold caves in search of a piece of the Eye of Gruumsh. The FLGS group stormed the hobgoblin/goblin caves in search of a kidnapped heir. The online group got sidetracked into the kobold caves in their search for the Eye of Gruumsh in session one before heading in the right direction into the minotaur caves in session two.

Caves of Chaos map by The Weem

The good

Combat was quick, as promised. Whether online or in-person, combat was much faster than the 4e that we’re used to. It was nice not to have to track a bunch of fiddly bonuses and conditions – although this was only 1st level, and I don’t know how that stuff will be at, say, 8th level.

With the relatively light amount of plot and rules, I was forced to improvise a lot on the DM side of the screen, and I had a lot of fun doing so. I could probably achieve the same result if I just ran a low-prep 4e session, but I’ve never actually done that.

Players who lean toward older editions of D&D really liked the feel of the game. It looks like WotC is succeeding in making an edition that “feels like D&D” to a lot of folks.

Advantage/disadvantage is a fun mechanic on both sides of the screen.

Not being able to heal completely between fights made it feel like the players’ decisions mattered more. They liked that.

The Race/Class/Theme/Background setup of the characters made several players feel more connected to the characters from a role-playing perspective. Having a trade for the Commoner theme was great.

The Herbalism skill was popular – letting the cleric create potions and Healer’s Kits for half price.

Number of hit points felt about right for the PCs.

The dying mechanic felt fun and exciting.

Coup de grace is satisfyingly vicious in the right circumstances.

The not so good

The characters were pretty limited in their options in combat. We’re hopeful that this might change with later modules.

Since hiding requires your action for the turn, players pretty much never wanted to do it, even the rogue.

Jumping across a 10-foot gap is pretty darn easy if you let characters extend their arms – even an 8 Strength character can clear it.

Having magical attacks like Radiant Lance going against AC felt weird. Simpler, though.

Tactically-minded players found combat to be kind of boring.

We miss opportunity attacks – and yes, I know this will be coming in a later module.

We miss spell cards. It’s a pain to have to refer to a separate book to figure out what the wizard’s spells do. 4e had this right.

The rogue needs more options for explicitly getting advantage. Hiding, as mentioned earlier, was not fun.

The fighter seemed pretty ridiculously powerful compared to the other characters in combat. That’s a lot of damage! And it wasn’t even interesting – the fighter swings his axe and either deals a crapton of damage or 3 damage on a miss. Rinse and repeat.

It would be nice to have all of the skills in one place, rather than the Rogue’s split between two different pages.

We need rules for swarms of monsters – fighting 34+ kobolds, sometimes with advantage or disadvantage, would have gotten really slow if I hadn’t been using a computer for the dice rolling.

I’m hoping that published adventures in Next will not all be so sandboxy. The free-form stuff can be fun, but it can also be fun to have some plot. I’d like to see what Next can do with a set-piece encounter as well.

The players who like 4e and Pathfinder weren’t very excited about this game in general. They didn’t see anything yet that makes them feel like switching (again, though, this is an early playtest).


Overall, I had some fun with this first round of playtesting. By the end of the fourth session, though, I was pretty much done with it. The online group had a final  battle when they found the Eye of Gruumsh piece and it basically possessed the rogue, who turned evil and super-powerful, leading to a player versus player battle that ended in lots of death. With the party pretty much wiped out, I was relieved to be done.

I’ll certainly keep testing D&D Next as new playtests come out, and I’m hopeful that it will end up being a game that I really enjoy a lot. There’s some good stuff here, but it’s not as fun as 4th Edition to me right now. In its final version, though, here’s hoping!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. Thank you again to the Weem for the awesome Caves of Chaos maps. They were tremendously helpful!

Quick Hits: January 2012

After taking a brief, inadvertent break from blogging recently, I thought I’d jump back in with some quick-hit thoughts on D&D Next, my own D&D campaigns, some non-RPG games I’ve played, the Order of the Stick Kickstarter, and the upcoming Genghis Con.

D&D Next

I’m liking most of what I’m hearing out of DDXP. Simplicity if you want it, complexity if you want it, and a real effort to reach out to players of all editions. The Dice Monkey Radio bonus episode featured yours truly discussing the game with some other folks in the D&D community. I can’t wait to get my 1e books! Yay for potential unity!

My D&D Campaigns

I’ve had some real life stuff interfering with my gaming for the past couple of months, and my Friday night MapTool game is currently on hiatus. Fortunately, it looks like the real life stuff has cleared up, and I should be able to resume that game soon. Yay!

My Madness at Gardmore Abbey and ZEITGEIST campaigns have been similarly delayed, though less explicitly so. I’m hopinh to run a session of Gardmore this weekend. I was thrilled to discover that Tracy Hurley, Sarah Darkmagic herself, included a link to my write-ups of my Gardmore Abbey sessions in her article over on the Wizards of the Coast D&D page. Woo hoo!  Thanks again, Tracy!

I’m also working on a new adventure in response to a reader question. I received a request for some basic “DM 101” tips. I provided a few in an email (this came during the real-life-interfering time, so I didn’t write much), but I definitely want to make this into a blog post. And I think an important DM 101 thing to provide is a good intro adventure. I did a lot of brainstorming on planes last week and am hoping to build the adventure itself and run it in the next couple of weeks.

Non-RPG games

I got a copy of Innovation for Christmas and have played it several times. Cool little game, and it travels well! I was in Florida and Pennsylvania last week, and a friend in Florida and family members in Pennsylvania all enjoyed it. 

When I was in my FLGS recently, I saw a copy of Kittens in a Blender. In real life I’m a cat lover, even fostering kittens for the local animal shelter. Still, I couldn’t resist – in part because the game makers apparently donate part of the proceeds to a no-kill shelter.

I finally tried the game with my wife Monday night, and it’s about what I expected – rather goofy! I think it would play much better with more than two players, of course. I find that there’s an interesting tension in the game when your “best” move is to go ahead and hit the Blend button in order to save your kittens who have gotten away, but when you have a kitten or two who will face death in the machine. The illustrations are adorable, and they make it hard to consign the fluffies to die. And that’s a good thing!

Genghis Con

The local convention is a couple of weeks away, and I’m excited! I’ll be running my Staff of Suha trilogy, and I have players signed up for all three slots. I was disappointed to learn that the Hero System game based on Dr. Horrible that I was registered for was canceled, but I’m still looking forward to trying some Dresden Files and Ashes of Athas.

Order of the Stick books

I’m guessing most people who read my blog probably know about Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew’s awesome web comic about a stick figure band of D&D adventurers. I own all of the books except War and XPs, and was therefore very excited when Rich announced a Kickstarter project to get that book back in print.

He needed to raise almost $60,000 in order to get the book in print. He blew through that in about a day. As of this writing the Kickstarter has been up for a little over a week, and he’s raised nearly $300 grand and counting. This pretty much means that all of the OotS books will be in print. Yay!

My only frustration: The comic is so popular that all of the special rewards (such as those involving signed copies of the books) are snatched up before I have a chance to sign up for them! Oh well; good for Rich!

If you love OotS, I recommend supporting this Kickstarter.

Looking ahead

Now that real life seems to have gotten out of the way, I’m looking forward to more gaming goodness. My new web site should be going live soon, and I’m excited about the improved look and feel. Fun things are afoot!

-Michael the Online Dungeon Master

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

WotC to reprint 1st Edition AD&D books – woo hoo!

Check out the solicitation to retailers: http://www.wizards.com/ContentResources/Wizards/Sales/Solicitations/2012_04_17_dd_1stED_Solicitation_en_US.pdf

This is excellent! I’m pretty much just a 4th Edition player, and I plan to pre-order a set of these as soon as they’re available from my FLGS. I’d love to have my own copy of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide in particular, but also the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual. And it benefits the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund. Too cool!

I’m very encouraged by this. Maybe WotC will have some success in uniting the D&D community after all. Way to go WotC! April 17 can’t come soon enough.

A plea for good PR for D&D

I’m not an edition warrior, and edition wars make me sad. I know they’ll always exist, but I hope for a day when they are barely noticeable.

I came to D&D too late for the last edition war. I played a little bit of 3rd Edition in 2002 or thereabouts, but didn’t really get into the game until early 2010 with 4th Edition. Thus, my information about the 3e to 4e edition war has come after the fact, when 4e was already well-established and people had taken sides. I missed the “people forming their opinions” stage of the war and have only personally seen the “cold war” state of things.

It seems to me that there are certainly facets of 4e that people who dislike the game actually dislike. However, a lot of those have become less prominent with the introduction of the Essentials books (for instance the “sameness” of classes and martial classes with daily powers).

It also seems that people who don’t like 4e dislike the way certain things are presented in the books. For instance, they feel that there’s too much emphasis on tactical combat and not enough on flavor, exploration and wonder. A fair criticism, and also something that’s gotten better in later books, but it’s something that’s not an inherent problem with the game itself, just its presentation. A good 4e DM can have plenty of flavor, exploration and wonder in the game.

Thus, I think a lot of people who hate 4e could potentially have a lot of fun playing the game if they wanted to. But they do not want to – strongly.

So why are there such strong negative feelings toward 4e in some quarters, rather than just apathy? If a game doesn’t appeal to me, I generally ignore it. I don’t complain about it.

I think it’s clear that a big source of the vitriol against 4e was the poor public relations (PR) surrounding the launch of the edition. I didn’t see all of the “4e is the new edition” PR when it actually came out in 2008, but I’ve seen bits of it quoted in edition warry forum posts and such.

It was bad. WotC seems to have really alienated a large part of their player base. This isn’t always a bad thing for a company – sometimes you’ll have customers whom you’re not really interested in serving, and it would be better for the company if those customers went away. But I don’t think that’s the case with the customers WotC lost in the 4e transition. I think they screwed up by alienating that many people, and I think they’d agree that they screwed up.

Thus, my plea: Please, WotC, as you move forward with the D&D game in all of its incarnations, whether that’s 5th Edition or something else, please make PR a priority.

Note that I’m taking the term “public relations” at face value here – relations with the public. I don’t mean marketing-speak or alternate reality games or weird PR stunts or anything like that. I mean, think very carefully and put real resources into building and maintaining good relationships with the gaming public as you work on new projects.

To be clear, I think Mike Mearls has done a very good job of this so far. I think the hiring of Monte Cook, clearly a fan of older editions, is probably a step in the right direction (although WotC will need to delicately handle the message here to folks who LIKE 4e; Monte’s columns have the potential to alienate them). But I could see it blowing up, badly.

Stay positive. Don’t bad-mouth other editions of the game or other games (like Pathfinder). Talk about what’s great about your new projects without dwelling too much on the perceived “problems” you’re solving . Think carefully about how your words will be interpreted before you write them or say them in public.

This is not an easy task, of course. One extreme would be to say as little as possible and to make sure that everything you say is carefully vetted. That’s a mistake, too. Openness of communication with the gaming community is a hugely important way of building goodwill. But you have to make sure the people who are doing that communicating have the right attitude.

Be nice. Be welcoming. Develop a thick skin (because haters gotta hate). Acknowledge what’s good about other editions and other games.

Even if you don’t get waves of people migrating to your game, good PR will keep you from seeing waves of people migrating away. And from reading comments online, it sounds to me like a lot of people who don’t currently play 4e are open to the idea of considering WotC D&D in the future, if it’s done well. Bad PR will make sure that those potential customers never give your product a shot. Be positive, open and welcoming.

You can do it. Good luck!

My first Pathfinder game

Well, it’s official – I’m a Pathfinder player!

No, I haven’t abandoned Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition; that’s still my main game. But I was invited to join an ongoing Pathfinder campaign run by a guy who I know to be a fantastic game master, so I took it as an opportunity to learn a new game.

I’m playing Beren, a human cleric of Desna, the goddess of luck and travel. The way the character came together was sort of funny. I was invited to join a game in a campaign world I knew nothing about. I read through the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and thought that cleric would be a good class for me to play. In looking at the various domains, I liked the luck and travel features of Desna and thought one of her clerics would provide some fun role playing opportunities (she’s very free spirited), so I rolled one up.

Then the GM provided the campaign guide (Rise of the Runelords) and it turns out that there’s a race of humans called the Varisians who are basically gypsies and who commonly worship Desna. Well, that’s an easy fit! So, Beren is a gypsy (although he’s somewhat adrift from his people and has been assimilating into non-Varisian society for several years).

It also turned out that the first session started with a dedication of a new temple of Desna in the town of Sandpoint, so my cleric was very well received. Hey, go with the flow.

The game itself was fun. We fought off a bunch of goblins attacking the town, became known as heroes, went on a boar hunt, got appointed as temporary town guards, and are currently investigating a glassworks that’s been invaded by goblins.

The role playing has been great. We’re all still getting to know our own characters, let alone one another’s, so it’s a slow process, but coming along nicely. The GM continues to be awesome, really bringing the NPCs to life. We made a lot of progress in the adventure itself, with four separate combat encounters already down and the plot beginning to unfold.

Combat is similar in a lot of ways to D&D4e, though there are certainly differences I need to keep in mind. I’ve accidentally cheated at least a couple of times by forgetting that every other diagonal square that you move in Pathfinder costs an extra square of movement. I’ve had to get used to the fact that the cleric’s most useful activities typically replace an attack (doing some healing, making someone’s next attack better) whereas in 4th Edition those things tend to be in addition to making an attack. I’ve gotten the feeling that I’ve probably screwed something up in making the character (he only has 8 hit points at first level, and the other characters seem to have a lot more), but I’m still having fun with him.

So far, I think I’d say I enjoy 4e as a game a bit better, but playing with a great GM is worth it for any system. Pathfinder is kind of fiddly compared to 4e, but it’s more “realistic”. I’ll definitely give it a nice, long try and I’ll have fun doing it. But so far if I had to pick just one game to play, I’d lean toward 4e. We’ll see how my opinion evolves as I get a better understanding of the Pathfinder system and more games under my belt.

Why does dislike for an edition get so heated?

I’m not much of an Edition Warrior. I only started playing D&D in earnest in early 2010, and I spend most of my time playing 4th Edition. I’ve had the chance to play AD&D First Edition as well as some other games like GURPS, Savage Worlds and Call of Cthulhu, and I’ve enjoyed them all. I look forward to trying out Pathfinder and more games in the future. I’m firmly in the “Can’t we all just get along?” camp.

Mxyzplk over at Geek Related put up a link to a post he wrote in 2009 that I found fantastic and enlightening. Basically, he explains that people who like older editions of D&D have a legitimate reason to express their concern about the direction of D&D 4th Edition even if they don’t play the game. The reason is that new players and new published material will tend to gravitate toward the currently supported edition of D&D, and thus it will become hard for people who like a different style of game (less emphasis on minis and battlemats and tactical positioning in combat) to find groups and new material in the future if the current edition is too different from what they enjoy. It was a very well-written, well-reasoned post.

However, just today the same author put up a post in which he described the newly announced Lair Assault program (which, to be clear, was first announced in January without the official name) as “4e Wallows In Its Own Filth” and causing him to “throw up in [his] mouth a little”. That’s a lot of hate.

Similarly, Greyhawk Grognard describes Lair Assault as confirmation that “4e is aimed at min-maxing twinks” and derides 4e as being an adaptation of mindless MMORPGs; it’s not really a role-playing game.

Here’s my take

Lair Assault doesn’t look like much fun to me. I feel dirty when I min-max a character. I enjoy story and role-playing, and Lair Assault promises to have as little of those as possible. It requires Fortune Cards, which I don’t personally enjoy.

However, that doesn’t mean that D&D 4th Edition is all about Lair Assault. The D&D Encounters program that I’m currently DMing does a good job of introducing story and opportunities for role playing – a better job than I would expect from an organized play event. My home games are tons of fun and involve maybe half of the session time (maybe less) spent in combat, which works for me. The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set is a rich adventure setting with tons of ideas to help inspire DMs to create interesting stories. I expect more of the same with the Feywild boxed set that’s coming out later this year. Those have nothing to do with min-maxing and ceaseless combat and tactics.

The passion

I’m completely comfortable with criticisms of 4th Edition. I personally am not thrilled with the Lair Assault announcement, either, and I think that if Wizards of the Coast pours its D&D resources into programs like that, I probably won’t enjoy the game as it evolves over the next couple of years compared to where it is today. I think it’s reasonable for me and others to speak up and let WotC know that we’re not big fans of that type of program.

Where I get uncomfortable is when I see hate. The posts from Greyhawk Grognard and Geek Related about Lair Assault come across as very hate-filled toward 4e. Maybe that’s intentional on the part of the authors; maybe not. But the tone really matters a lot, at least to someone like me. When I see such hate directed at 4e in general, and I’m a person who enjoys the game, I feel that the hate is directed at me by extension, even though I’m sure that’s not the authors’ intent.

I fully support the Old School Renaissance, Pathfinder and independent RPGs, even though I spend most of my gaming time with D&D4e. I respect that fans of older editions of D&D are concerned about the direction of the game because a bad direction could mean that it will be really hard for them to find new players and new materials for their preferred style of game in the future. I think they SHOULD make their voices heard on these topics, even if I don’t feel the same way they do.

I don’t support hate. Reasonable people can disagree about things in a civil way without using such strongly negative, passionate language. I loved Mxyzplk’s 2009 post. It was strongly anti-4e, but I didn’t feel hated or that there was unreasonable negative emotion in the post. If more posts (on blogs and on message boards) that take aim at something unappealing about an edition were written in that way, I think we’d have much less fretting over edition wars. I think that would also lead to a stronger gaming community.

Recruiting new players – like me!

Think about it this way: If you’re a fan of an older edition or Pathfinder, wouldn’t you WANT someone like me to read your thoughts and think, “Wow, this is good stuff. This is someone I’d want to game with. I should check out that game because the people who play it seem to be awesome.” That’s a completely reasonable possibility! I’m still in the discovery stage of role-playing games, and I could very well settle on games other than 4e in the end.

But when someone like me sees such hate from supporters of other games, well, it makes me nervous about joining those communities. Do I really want to game with people who are filled with such passionately negative emotions about a different version of the game that they play? Honestly, I don’t want that.

Keep in mind that hate can turn people off, people whom you might really want to join your community. Is it really necessary?

Treasure from the past

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I had tried playing a little bit of D&D years ago, under Third Edition (3e) rules.  My wife and I bought the 3e starter kit and later the core books (Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual).  We played through some of the starter kit dungeons (I was the DM, she ran several characters) and had a good time.  One of the people she worked with was a regular D&D player, as was his girlfriend, and they were interested in playing with us.  We set up a session where I would DM and the three of them would play.

I remembered that I had run them through a pre-packaged module where they had quickly taken it off the rails, and I was unprepared as a first-time DM to deal with it, so that ended badly.  They also fudged their dice rolls to get extra crits, which I also didn’t know how to deal with.  That turned us off of D&D for years until we picked it up again in early 2010.

Now that I’m running my Fourth Edition party through the Keep on the Shadowfell I’m having a better time keeping my wits about me when the unexpected happens (and no one is fudging their dice, either, which helps).  I’ll admit that I’m starting to get a little tired of the Keep, though, and I’m thinking ahead to what might come next.  I had come up with lots of neat little ideas, trying not to put too much effort into any of them because I don’t know what direction things will go.  And then I remembered something:

Didn’t I do some prep work for my own Third Edition adventure way back when?

I found my old manila folders for D&D 3e stuff.  There was a folder full of character sheets for characters that both Barbara and I had rolled up.  I learned two things here:

  • Wow, we sure rolled up a lot of characters, especially without Character Builder!
  • I think the old way of rolling ability scores must have been overpowered – those characters had some amazing stats.

That was a nice trip down memory lane (ah yes, Barbara’s elf Druid named Lyssiah Stormwhisper!  I remember her…), but what I really wanted was in the next folder:

  • The printout of the ill-fated pre-packaged adventure that I ran
  • A map for a world of my own creation that I had drawn in colored pencils (two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • An arena dungeon with multiple levels that I had created myself (two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • A cavern-style dungeon with even more levels that I created myself (again two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • A typed, four-page write-up of a full-on adventure through the cavern-style dungeon, complete with monsters, traps, difficulty classes to find doors and so on, read-aloud text…

I was blown away by the amount of time I must have put into creating this stuff – and I never used any of it!  None!  The full adventure write-up amazed me.  It’s not quite up to the quality of a professional module, of course, but it’s not completely amateurish, either.  I remember devising this dungeon and the back story now that I’ve re-read it, and I remember that I thought hard about verisimilitude when I crafted the dungeons.  For instance, I thought about why these creatures would be living where they did, why secret doors would be hidden, where the creatures slept and spent their awake time, and so on.

The question now is, what do I do with this?  I don’t think I’d use the “published adventure” that I wrote as-is since it was customized for the characters who were in the party at the time.  I could totally see myself using the dungeon maps, though, just with new monsters and even the same general logic of what types of monsters can be found where.  They still seem like pretty cool encounter areas.

What do you think?  Is something like this worth re-using?  To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ve put the world map that I drew below (click to enlarge).  If you’re interested in seeing the other maps and the adventure I had written, let me know.

Ervallen Map

Fourth Edition for people who prefer earlier editions

Karl (one of the people I had the pleasure of playing old-school D&D with last week in Albany) made an insightful comment on the blog that got me thinking.  He pointed out that some people don’t like all of the emphasis on tactical movement in D&D Fourth Edition, and also that there has been a collapse of many different skills into a smaller number (with the “taking ranks in a skill” concept radically changed to just a zero-one binary of being trained in a skill or not being trained in it).  It got me thinking: What should a person who doesn’t like some of these elements of 4e do?

The simplest option (and the cheapest), of course, is to play an earlier edition.  OSRIC lets you play something like First Edition for free, and as I understand it the System Resource Document lets you play something like Third Edition or 3.5 for free.  So, if you prefer an older edition, you can play one.  That’s what Shawn’s group does, and it seems to work for them.

But are there things you could take from 4e and combine with earlier editions to make something more to your liking?  I think there are.  When I think about it, 4e feels like it could be quite modular if you wanted it to be.

First, flavor.  If you just love the flavor of Fourth Edition and want to use it with an earlier rule set, that’s obviously very easy.  Sure, you’ll have to change around numbers on monsters and so on, but their descriptions can be identical and their powers can be adapted to a different set of rules.  If you like the 4e gods, use them.  Setting information, dungeon maps, whatever you like can be easily transferred to another edition’s rules.  I’ll admit that I don’t personally have strong feelings about the flavor of 4e, but if you do, have at it!

Next, powers.  This is one that I think you either love or hate about 4e.  In Fourth Edition, characters start with (in general) two at-will powers that they can use as much as they want, one encounter power that they can only use once every battle, and one daily power that they can only use once per day (and they get more as they go up in level).  In earlier editions, the only equivalents you had to at-will powers were melee or ranged basic attacks (I swing my sword, I shoot my crossbow, etc.).  You could also do something that’s pure role playing (I talk to the bad buy or my allies, I try to hide, I jump onto a table, etc.), and that’s still there in 4e, too.  Magic users in earlier editions had a certain number of spells they could cast per day (very few at low levels), which gives them a little bit of a daily power feel, but other classes don’t seem to have any equivalents.  I like the whole power system in 4e, partly because everyone has at-wills that are useful in combat and partly because I like the tension of when to use dailies and encounter powers versus saving them for later.

Could you use this power system in an earlier edition?  I don’t see why not.  Some powers have certain ranges on them or a number of squares that they affect, but I think a good 1e DM could handle that stuff without breaking out a battle map.  Weren’t there the equivalent of bursts and blasts in earlier editions, such as with a fireball?  I assume the DM would say, “Okay, these three bad guys are clustered together, so your fireball hits all of them, but the other two are far enough away that they’re safe.”  Same idea here.  Powers that generate something like difficult terrain would be tougher without a battle map, and you probably wouldn’t want to use those unless the DM really liked mentally keeping track of this stuff.  Even there, you could rule that a power that created difficult terrain around a bad guy would make it hard for them to charge you on the next turn, and it’s up to the DM to say whether they can get to you or not.  This is basically playing 4e without a map or minis, and while I like the map and minis, I think a group could absolutely play a great 4e game without them, as long as they weren’t nitpickers for EXACTLY how close imaginary point A is to imaginary point B.

How about the collapse of skills?  Here’s an area where it’s almost totally unrelated to combat, so you can separate the two.  If you love the powers and maybe even the map-and-minis combat of 4e but you prefer the larger number of skills where you spend ranks in them, as you had in 3e and 3.5, then just go with the older skill system.  I think the new skill system was probably designed to be easier for new players to grasp, and I agree that it’s likely a sign of Wizards of the Coast de-emphasizing role playing to emphasize tactical combat.  If you are cool with more complexity in your skills, though, use the older skill system and enjoy!

Now let’s talk about numbers.  I must say that the transition to “higher AC is harder to hit” in Third Edition was a good change, period.  Maybe someone can convince me that the old system, where you want to lower your AC and you have to figure out your THAC0 and all of that, makes good sense.  But I personally don’t see it.  This is something I would adopt wholesale, even if I wanted to play an older edition.  I also think that having to use a table to look up whether an attack hits a monster, depending upon the class of the PC who hit, seems overly complex and doesn’t add anything to the game, at least as far as my limited understanding goes.  But hey, if you love the tables, stick with them.

I don’t know enough about the other numbers in older editions to say how they would differ from 4e, but I get the impression that HP totals are lower (for both characters and monsters) in 1e, and that it’s probably true that battles are swingier (you get lucky and kill a bad guy right at the start, or you get unlucky and he kills you with one hit).  That’s fine if you like it, but I imagine that if you didn’t like it, you could probably use 4e as a guide for hit points and damage output.  Of course, some people complain about “grind” in 4e, with battles taking too long due to the high hit points all around, so maybe there’s a good middle ground.  I know that I personally wouldn’t want to be a wizard running around with 4 HP and scared of my own shadow, but hey, maybe that’s just a great opportunity for role playing!

There are lots of other little details that could probably be taken from 4e by themselves if you wanted, and I think doing so would be easy enough if you’re cool with house rules.  Character creation using a point buy system is something that’s not unique to 4e, and I would personally use it over rolling dice (now that I’ve had a chance to try it both ways).  Using Fortitude, Reflex and Will as defenses other than AC that an attack might go after is something I could take or leave, and if you preferred using them as saving throws as in older editions, you certainly could do so.  Conditions that “save ends” seem fun to me, and you could easily introduce those to a First Edition game, and so on.

Ultimately, you’ve got to go where the fun is for you and your group.  If you’re happy with the rules of one edition (or one non-D&D game) as written, then life is easy for you.  If there are things that annoy you about the rules of your current edition, you might be able to pilfer different rules from other editions.  Me, I like 4e just fine as written, but if I got to the point that something about it just grated on my nerves, I wouldn’t hesitate to use house rules to change it.

Old-school Dungeons and Dragons

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.