Wizards R&D Seminar at GenCon 2007

EN World and the official site are back up, so you can all bundle over there for the latest news and preliminary pictures of the core rulebooks.

Wizards Research & Development held a press conference. Reports from the conference are out from EN World user ashockney and EN World admin Michael Morris. You can read the reports for yourself at those links, so let me give my (epic length) commentary:

As I’d suspected, Mike Mearls of Iron Heroes fame is working on 4e, and it seems he’s been lead developer since April. If you do the maths and count back, you can find Mike’s response to when he found out he was working on 4th edition.

There are some other blog posts of his which are suddenly interesting in retrospect: discussing the RPG industry downturn [1] [2], PDF publishing, and the Open Gaming License [1] [2] and freelancing, while carefully deflecting fourth edition rumours and perhaps hinting at Gencon 2007.

Some more information has been revealed. The number of core races and character classes has been cut down, with some classes merged - ranger will merge with scout, and rumour suggests the same with wizard and sorcerer. D&D’s historic Vancian spellcasting system (spell preparation) will be retained, although a spellcaster’s magic will be split between at-will, per-counter or a per-day basis. Magic item creation finally returns to second edition simplicity - no item creation feats or XP costs, and even magic item pricing guidelines are getting the axe. Creating a new magic item is once again a special occurrence that any spellcaster can attempt.

Preliminary covers are out for the core books, with 3e’s pseudo-constructed finish superceded the fantastic art of Wayne Reynolds. The Player’s Handbook features an old male tiefling mage and what I think is a female elven fighter, while the Dungeon Master’s Guide has a red dragon and the Monster Manual an epic-level encounter, Orcus.

Setting-wise, Greyhawk fans will find that their special status as the implied setting of 3e has not carried over into this one. D&D’s default setting is now an unnamed setting, and the Greyhawk pantheon is replaced with the DM’s choice of homebrewed religions or popular mythologies. I like this. You will meet clerics of Lugh, or warriors who revere Thor, or encounter the worship of the DM’s own Nalost, The Sharp Hunter. However, the named spells (Bigby’s, Mordenkainen’s, Tenser’s) and the big name powers (Vecna, Tiamat, Asmodeus) will still make appearances.

If we didn’t know it already, it’s now official that huge improvements from Star Wars: Saga Edition and Mearls’ Iron Heroes/Tome of Battle will become core rules in the new edition of D&D. We can surmise from Saga Edition that feats and class abilities are replaced by flexible Diablo II style talent trees, and Skills have been consolidated into straightforward groups - finally, Hide and Move Silently are a single skill, while rubbish like Profession and Use Rope has been discarded. Double-fistfuls of dice are no longer required to roll attacks at high level, critical threats automatically confirm. From Iron Heroes, we can expect to see an emphasis on “action fantasy”: melee fighters who can learn special combat techniques, emphasis on cool character abilities instead of magic items and buff spells, much more tactical management, and a simpler XP system.

Even basics like class and race have been overhauled. Prestige classing is out, flexible talent trees are in. Multiclassing is much more feasible than the previous edition, and a dual-classed character is now balanced for his level. Even more significant is the new race system, and how this interacts with monsters, monster advancement and monster characters. You unlock new racial abilities as you level up, making a dwarf fighter very different to an elf fighter. Humans will no longer be the dominant race in all fields, and in a return to earlier editions, races will be more strongly suited to their favoured classes.

An excellent side-effect of this racial bonuses is that level adjustments have been eliminated in favour of simply granting the racial abilities gradually as the character levels up in his normal class. Interestingly, this paves the way for creatures who advance by class level to have their own racial abilities! I fully expect that when you open the Monster Manual at “orc” or “hobgoblin” you won’t see a statblock for a “typical orc”. It’s entirely feasible that the “orc” entry will read more like the twenty-level NPC listings Dungeon Master’s Guide. This is a good move, especially since it means you’re going to get much more use out of your standard humanoid miniatures. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find the majority of monsters featuring some sort of advancement options, such that you can run an advanced minotaur or troll straight from the manual without preparation. Again, good for variety, and you get a lot more value out of your miniatures.

If you really want to play your kobold sorcerer, we’ve been assured that this will be an option presented in the Monster Manual. For the moment, at least, monster player characters like beholders are right out. This is no big loss - as well as a lack of variety in many monsters’ abilities, the level adjustment required to balance most monsters made them unplayably weak and left no advancement options. We may see a book on playing monster characters later, but in the meantime, DMs can ad-hoc monster PCs like they used to in second edition.

Wizards will be announcing more tidbits later, and will hopefully confirm my monster advancement theory, otherwise I’ll just look stupid.

Comments (6)

Jason Thompson (August 23rd, 2007)

I’m curious how 4th ed will turn out, but for now I’m just going to focus on the negative. ;) Ditching prestige classes?!? That sucks. That, together with the “races are much more strongly suited to particular classes” thing, suggests a vastly simplified, I would say oversimplified, character generation system. So now everyone who wants to play a barbarian is going to be pressured into playing an orc, I imagine. Dullsville.

And lastly — @#$%!!! No useless Profession skills? What’s next, no useless Knowledge skills? Sure, Use Rope is silly, but Profession skills *are* important… sure, not for combat… but for role-playing and flavor and all that stuff. Furthermore, Professional skills are often a significant factor in 3rd party OGL systems. For that matter, I did always like 2nd edition’s rambling list of skills like flower arranging and cooking and calligraphy. ;)

Jason Thompson (August 23rd, 2007)

Oh, and I’m not being tongue-in-cheek about Profession skills! Those have to stay in any reasonable version of D&D! Gambling and cooking and… I don’t know… arrow-fletching forever!!!

Chibz (September 1st, 2007)

I’ve always felt that a character should not be designed for a “class”, but rather for a “profession”. A “Job” in society. The class was just there, as a genera guideline to provide an array of potential jobs.

Encouraging, or even pressuring people into being certain race(s) for a class is more than a little silly.

Also, the third edition heavy emphasis on combat being the main source of exp discourages rp, rather than encouraging it. And should not an RPG be focused on the RP, not the combat?

Chibz, the legendary blacksmith, will not be buying this edition.

Gedz (September 5th, 2007)

Here, at the large looming of 4th edition, I find myself with mixed emotions. While I have trusted WotC to produce quality (or at least entertaining) products that add to my gaming experience, I also find this ‘4th Ed.’ foul-timed and ill-played.

Some of these reports do give me a glimmer of satisfaction, as the changes in the system are right on par with many of my house rules and the flavor with which I try to host my games and custom settings. Some of these changes, however, evoke something of an angry gag reflex somewhere deep within my soul; something that wants to lash out, pained in a warped sense of betrayal.

I recognize that some races and classes jive slightly more well together than others. Making a grey elf sorcerer is a little bit more pleasing to me than the prospect of having to play an orc sorcerer, but that’s because I like casters with really high spell DCs. At least the orc sorcerer could choose to take transmutation and abjuration spells so as to become a brutal force of untoward destruction similar to his barbarian friends (thank you Tenser!), differing only in practice. To make these differences extreme to the point of deterring certain racial/class combinations completely sounds like a danger that may pigeonhole or even punish more ‘risky’ players that wish to experiment.

Releasing or forgetting about profession, knowledge, craft, or other trade or RP skills strikes a resounding chord of danger in my mind. Will this game appeal to more than just the trigger-happy?

While I recognize that prestige classes aren’t necessary to the existence of the game, they do provide interesting role-playing venues as well as great rewards in power and, well, prestige for characters who were able, or fortunate enough, to ascend into their ranks. Although, if prestige classes are abandoned, does this speak to more of a skill-based, or build-based system, almost akin to White Wolf or to the SPECIAL system? If D&D moves into a more ‘diabloesque’ form, this in itself presents it’s own host of worries for me. While streamlining game play, the decision to diablerize D&D will, I feel, ultimately crush a certain form of ingenuity and the clever, creative planning I enjoy when approaching character builds, as it was ever so fun for me to find ways to combine feats in ways that may or may not have been seen as valid for certain character builds or even useful in the cases of others. Creating a fast track, skill tree-like system may discourage this.

Although there are a few things that throw up warning flags, I do ultimately see a lot of good in some of the overarching ideas surrounding 4th Ed. The move to make magic more flexible in terms of choosing when your magic refreshes (probably to allow casters to choose where they want to exist on the spectrum of Wizard to Warlock; lots of power with limited flexibility, limited power with lots of flexibility, or somewhere in between) and the move to create a more personal item creation system (which means that you probably won’t be buying magic items en-bulk) puts more emphases on personal power and character development, not on the gear said character is wearing; an aspect I try to promote in my own games.

About the skills: I have run campaigns where hide and move silently were one skill; it just makes sense. So as far as skill revamping goes, I’m all for it. Just don’t remove the ability for skills to be an important aspect of character development in the sense that skills which find almost no combat usage are required for decent role playing.

Better exp. system? Sounds great! The epic group I lead will no longer get headaches trying to calculate their experience, and I’ll have more free time to figure out what the next most-horrid-thing-you-can-imagine I’ll throw at them.

I enjoy that critical hits confirm instantly; that’s how I first started playing D&D anyway.

It does sound like the combat has been streamlined to be even faster than before, that’s good. I know I’ve spend one entire 5 or 6 hour session doing one big fight (near campaign ending) with a 9 person group I led about 3 years ago; that would have been a ripe atmosphere for some streamlined combat effectiveness.

But in the midst of creating a more powerful combat engine, I hope WotC doesn’t forget that depth of customization gives us the tools for powerful role playing, which in turn gives players the motivation for why that half-elf became a ranger in the first place, or why that dwarf chose to pick a life of knowledge as a wizard over that of honor. I believe the game will still be what we as players make it, but there is a difference between over-simplification and streamlined effectiveness.

These are just my 2 cents as a faithful fan, player, and dungeon master who has purchased my fair share of books from WotC. Ultimately, I hope that these opinions would be read as more than just mine, but as the opinions of the many people I role play with and several others who will not get online or spend the time to host their opinions. I will probably at least browse the 4th Ed. books when they come out.

I do admit, when I first heard of 4th Ed. I felt betrayed. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell if this is a reform sparked by a desire to enhance and elevate the gaming experience, not an ‘evolution’ born of greed. Only time will tell, I guess.

Jonathan Drain (September 6th, 2007)

@Gedz: It makes sense to retain Knowledge skills, but how frequently did anyone actually need to roll Profession (sailor)? In my mind, there’s no real loss if the definition of skills is tightened to only “adventuring skills, difficult things I have to roll for”, shifting “things my character has but doesn’t necessarily roll for” into the same attribute category as something like alignment and deity. These factors are just as character-defining as skills and combat abilities, and in some cases more so.

Give it some time. You can’t make a fourth edition omelette without breaking a few third edition eggs.

Chris (September 9th, 2007)

My characters tend to each choose either a profession or a craft skill and usually keep the skill maximized as a defining characteristic of their personality. I’ve had profession skills come up quite frequently. Ever run a seafaring campaign? In ours, profession (sailor) checks came up as often as hide checks.

I’ve had chefs (I’m gonna make dinner out of you!), scribes, and miners. I agree that if the campaign isn’t tailored for it, those skills don’t come up much, but they are a lot of fun to roleplay.

Comments for this article are closed.