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.