Fourth Edition: Reviewed

It’s here! Fourth edition has finally arrived, and after years of speculation we finally get to see what all the fuss is about. Is it the holy grail of Dungeons & Dragons, or is it a scam by Hasbro to sell us more books? Read on to find out.

Having finished reading the D&D4 core books set, I think I’m ready to cast my verdict: I love this edition.

However, to quote the AD&D 2nd ed reprint, “This is not Dungeons & Dragons third edition!” I know a lot of us are big fans of third edition - we have to be, or we wouldn’t have played D&D up until now - and some of the changes here are so grand in scope as to be somewhat jarring. Not everyone will like this at first, and as with every previous edition, some will stick with the old version. That’s fine.

Let me tell you what I like about the new edition.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the game goes to great lengths to make itself accessible to new players. The Player’s Handbook in particular is much more newbie-friendly, to the extent that hardcore players have complained that it feels “dumbed down”. It’s certainly more approachable. The game introduction has been increased from two pages to six, a sign that this edition is making a commendable effort to bring in fresh blood. Experienced players can probably skip this chapter.

Fourth edition has deliberately sacrificed a number of traditions in its search for better gameplay, a move that won’t make it many friends among the D&D historians. Spell preparation is gone, replaced with an elegant character “power” system that sees abilities sorted into “once per round”, “once per encounter” and “once per day”. AD&D’s two-axis alignment has been flattened to a five-point line between Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil; simpler, but Planescape traditionalists will be pulling their hair out.

I always found combat to be undeservingly slow in third edition, bogged down at later levels with time-consuming full attack actions. Fourth has streamlined the entire process to decrease the time you spend waiting for your turn, which hopefully will make combat more exciting. Almost always you will roll 1d20 plus your attack modifier versus the opponent’s relevant defence score, a method which speeds gameplay without making actions dull or less meaningful.

Combat has been improved in other ways, too. Fighters now learn special abilities, such as locking down a single opponent or striking with a stunning-type attack - and that’s just first level. Weapon choice has been made more meaningful in several ways: sword-and-shield combat is worth playing again, weapon damage is a higher percentage of your overall damage, and weapons that deal less damage all have properties to compensate.

The use of miniatures is now definitively standard, having been recommended as a game enhancement since AD&D First Edition. In one sense this is a drawback; miniatures can set you back something like five pounds or ten dollars per encounter, and you will never have all the ones you need. It’s a business decision by Wizards of the Coast, but only partially so: I can attest that even a rudimentary grid system greatly improves the game’s combat. You don’t even necessarily have to spend a lot of money, as there are alternatives to plastic minis.

Lest you think that D&D has moved the game’s focus wholly to combat, D&D4 continues to support non-combat magic (now designated ‘rituals’) and roleplaying encounters (‘conversations’), as well as giving the skills system a serious overhaul. Skills have been consolidated from thirty-six to a concise seventeen. You now add half your level to checks, a common mechanic in this edition, which ensures that epic level characters won’t be consistently out-Bluffed by every first level rogue.

What impresses me the most, however, is how much attention has been paid to solving even the game’s littlest problems, on both sides of the table. Prestige classing detracted from a character’s party role, so they became bonus abilities that mesh with an existing class. Sleeping between every encounter is discouraged because most of your abilities are at-will or per-encounter. Small creatures don’t need miniature weapons any more. You can wield improvised weapons without a penalty, shoot into melee without penalty, advance a monster in three minutes, be raised from the dead without lagging behind the party, stop collecting vendor trash, and play a half-elf without sucking. Bravo, fourth edition!

For DMs like myself, the new Dungeon Master’s Guide is amazing. Where the third edition DMG concerned itself largely with DM-specific rules and charts, its 4E counterpart cuts right to the core of running a D&D game. How do make sure my players enjoy the game? How do I prepare for a game? How do I handle description, pacing, and improvising? Should I fudge dice rolls? This book is packed with practical advice drawn from the authors’ experience, and its benefit to your game is immeasurable.

The Monster Manual fits its Contents list into a single page - are we being served fewer monsters this time? The answer is yes and no. The book presents 156 monsters, with an average of just over three versions each (thirteen devils, six types of kobolds), totalling 490 creatures plus sixteen templates. By comparison, the 3.5 MM offered 420 monsters including variants, 236 not including variants, and 182 if we ignore mundane animals and templates. It’s also a lot easier now to scale monsters up or down by as much as five levels, and the new statblock format is more straightforward to use.

Overall, I like D&D4. Players have more interesting options, Dungeon Masters spend less time in preparation, combat moves faster and balance issues have been addressed. I’m giving D&D fourth edition the thumbs up.

A few other blogs have written their reviews:


Comments (1)

Anon. (September 7th, 2008)

Oh my God. Your “positive” review makes it sound like a complete train wreck to me. “continues to support non-combat magic (now designated ‘rituals’) and roleplaying encounters (‘conversations’)” — in other words, they’ve gutted non-combat stuff and separated it out as a sort of appendix or sideline. Eeeeewwwww.

We must have *very very* different DMing styles! Sounds like it’s a fun combat minis game, but that’s not for me.

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