Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Which The Warlock Jumps The Gun (and Possibly The Shark)...

I've genuinely been debating on whether or not to do this. After receiving the books last Friday, I've been reading through the 4e core books, but have not (alas! alack!) been able to put together a game with the Witt-Weggers. As such, the opinion on them is still somewhat unformed.

Right now, I'm sure that very few people (relatively speaking) in the roleplaying world have actually played 4e. Many have, no doubt about that, but with the two mega-cons still coming up and the books only (officially) a week old, it's really difficult to provide an intelligent, well-researched review.

However, I'm a geek. One with regular Internet access, no less! Opinions are getting tossed back and forth like cannonballs across the D&D blogosphere....boy, now that's a phrase I never thought I'd type. People on ENWorld are very 4e friendly, already building fan creations and running play-by-post games. Paizo, on the other hand, has become a refuge for 3e grognard-ism, with some waiting for their Pathfinder release and others swearing that they'll never switch editions.

And me? Well, I'm here...waiting for Origins, for my big shot to play. But, in the meanwhile, I guess I'll give my two copper, as usual.

Let me put this out there, nice and clearly: This is only a "first impressions" review. This is in no way a playtest review. I have not yet played 4e, and all opinions that I'm about to divulge are based only on having read the books. Take that as you will.

Okay, legal-ese out of the way, here we go!

When 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was announced, I was genuinely pissed off. I had a feeling it was coming--rumors had abounded about delays in Wizards of the Coast's product schedule and gaps in their release dates, but little was certain. When their site went all "4 Adventure!" during their stint at Gen Con, "my doom was nigh!" as I tell the wee ones at Summit.

If you've been reading this blog at all--you few, pathetic souls that do--you know I've been on the fence for a while. Well, based on actually sitting down and reading the books, I've finally picked a side--if 4e plays out half as good as it looks to, I won't be playing 3.5e again for a long, long time.

While 3.5 revolutionized the way that D&D worked, streamlining it in ways that were unfathomable to even the most veteran game designers, it seemed to be a victim of its own success. Simply the idea of a unified dice mechanic (d20 + ability + training vs. Difficulty Class) brought the whole gaming culture under its wing. Yes, others have done it before, but this is D&D we're talking about--it's so head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of sales, that they're not even on the same chart!

The problem with that with the streamlining came massive discrepencies. While 3e was massively playtested (with incredibly positive results), later products were put out with much less playtesting, including entire new rulesets which did not always mesh well with the model 3.5e was putting forth. The Psionics rules, as well as the rules set down in Tome of Magic come immediately to mind.

In addition, 3.5e was very much centered around optimization--regardless of what you did, you wanted your character to be "Teh Best Evar!" at it. As such, we saw builds arise that utterly defied logic. One of my biggest complaints about the D&D play at Origins last year--particularly through the RPGA--is that it utterly rewarded those who min/maxed their little hearts out. The guy playing a Str 22 Half-Orc Rogue/Fighter, comes to mind, particularly as he utterly demolished my Str 16 Paladin, wielding a polearm. Don't even get me started on any magic users--particularly clerics and druids, who were known to beat other classes at their own schtick without even trying.

But, that was 3e. This is 4e.

4e took a somewhat radical approach in deciding "Hey, wait a minute. D&D is meant to be a party-style game. How about we focus on a group, rather than each individual in the group?" As such, they finally took the veils off of their readers and gave each class a "role". Fighters and Paladins are "Defenders," for example--their role is to soak up hits that others can't take, deal moderate damage in melee, and provide a central point for others to move around.

Simple thinking, I know, but it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. With all of the optimized builds out there in 3e, the idea of "what you're supposed to be doing to help the guys around you" got utterly lost. Did you hear about the charging paladin that could deal 16x his Strength mod on a lance-Power Attacked-Charge? more of that.

The decision to drop half-orcs and gnomes as races didn't quite bother me so much, though I was disappointed to not see Orcs as a fundamental player race. Dragonborn, though I loathe to write this, aren't really that bad, though the Tieflings seem somewhat out of place in what's supposed to be a "points of light" setting where civilization has been living in fear of demons and the like. That said, they are still a breath of fresh air into a particularly run of the mill set.
I was pleased to see that no race gets penalties to stats any longer--I can't count how many times that -Cha penalty has hurt my ideas for a Dwarven Paladin or Sorcerer. No more!

Classes are much the same, and I was not sad to see Bard go the way of the dodo. Seriously...bards? Little sing-y lute-players? This is a dungeon, man! Give me something serious!

Replacing Bards are the Warlords, martial captains based on the 3e idea of the Marshal. He fulfills the "leader" role, along with the cleric, as a light tank who buffs the party and can provide healing. Curious about this class, with which I had no prior experience, having not purchased the 3.5 Miniatures Handbook, I statted one up--as written, the idea is particularly unique. My warlord is particularly good at granting extra movement to allies, temporary hit points, and can trigger "healing surges" in a pinch, allowing allies to heal themselves.

Accompanying the Warlord (and replacing the Sorcerer, who is set to come out in a later supplement) is the Warlock, complete with 3 types of pacts--fae (from the realm of Faerie), infernal (typical deal with the devil), and star (holy Cthulhu, Batman!). Curious about this one, as well, I immediately statted up a warlock, as well. Ironically, this may in fact be my favorite class so far--the simple fact that I can drive foes insane by flinging them into Ry'leh (or whatever the D&Dism that matches it is) makes me a happy person.

Something new this time around is the idea that every class has "powers", which is peeled right from the earlier 3.5e release (and 4e harbinger) Book of Nine Swords. While I had feared that this might give a little more of the kung-fu flavor found in Bo9S, I was pleased to see that this wasn't the case. Rather... 4e you get a unified progression of powers that all classes are able to follow, which keeps the classes balanced against one another in terms of ability.

No more do we have Wizards who can annihilate the battlefield in 2 rounds, then have to rest to refresh their spell slots. Similarly, no more do we have a Fighter or Paladin who's stuck with his +1 Longbow at 21st level, simply because the enemy's flying. While having a hard and fast limit on abilities seems somewhat contradictory to choice, the ability to retrain powers and feats at each level allows for customizability options par excellence. Find your group doesn't benefit from that one encounter-power? Change it out for something different next level. It's that simple.

I realize this post is starting run long (really long! oi!), so I'll highlight the next few important issues very briefly:

1) The skill system has been massively overhauled and is much simpler. The skill list is fully 1/4 of what it used to be in 3.5, which is spectacular. The skill challenge system, as put down in the DMG provides for great non-combat encounters that are still challenging for players.

2) CR, for all intents and purposes, has been scrapped. Instead, we get an even more customizable system--simply pick the level of encounter you want, and you get an XP budget based on the number of players you have. Buy the monsters you want, and let it rip. Simple, streamlined, and easy to keep track of.

3) Monsters are cool again. While they've dropped much of the "ecology" section, it's been replaced with combat advice and restructured versions of several monsters, which keeps them viable at multiple degrees of play--called in 4e "tiers". I will admit, the Monster Manual has been the least favorite of my new reading material, but it's had to compete with the PH, which is no easy task.

4) The amount of bookkeeping, overall, is much, much lower. The conditions chart, which was 4 pages long an edition ago, now takes up 2/3 of a page. The combat rules, which were a massive section in 3e, is maybe half of the size. The massive amounts of "out of combat" spells that were in every supplement--they're rituals now, and much easier to deal with.

5) Yeah, no more Great Wheel. :( Maybe they'll have a Planescape setting come out sometime...

6) 4e's tactical and movement focus seems to heavily push the battlemat. Then again, the same thing was said about 3.0 and 3.5e when they came out. That said, 4e makes me want to use a battlemat. That's saying something, considering that I've been gaming for 15 odd years with only sparing use of one. The abilities in terms of terrain and movement just seem to mesh with it so well, particularly as a DM.

I guess, all told, my verdict is massively positive. The things that drove me nuts about 3.5e--the prep time, the massive stat blocks, the rules bloat--have all been tossed out the window. That said, 4e really reminds me--bear with me here!--of WEGS! Simple, quick character creation...powers for every character...tactical combat...Eerily similar, no? Now, if only I could find some time to play!!!


  1. So, the young miss Sarah--whom you may know from Saltmarsh--took some difficulty with my pleasure in 4e's removal of Bards. Here's her message, followed by my reply:

    What did you just say about thinking as a party, not as individuals?

    Then why dis the bard? It's excellent at support. Healing when the clerics is otherwise occupied, knowledge checks in obcure areas the arcane don't bother to study, loads of skill points to learn languages, and almost nothing BUT support spells to make people spiffy in combat. The jack of many and the master of none. But not useless. Futhermore, the idea of arcane magics and music combining, or the power of the voice, or words in general, is something that others don't have. The others, they cast spells. They do gestures or say cantrips or whatever you envision them doing, but bards just have to read a poem with the correct inflection, and people are under their control. Bards prove that words are power. Unique. Interesting. And extremely playable for those not interested in combat. I've played several successful bards, none of which have been pansy-ass or lute-playing.

    So in short, I think you're wrong.

    My experience with bards through both 2e and 3e comes down to a simple problem of economy of actions: while they can potentially have limitless options (being the jack of all trades that they most usually get labeled with), the game engines of 2e and 3e both reward specificity as time goes on. If the game grants you 3 actions (as both 3e and 4e typically do--one free/minor, one move, and one standard), you can't perform all roles in one round.

    Much of this comes from the bardic prestige classes that arose. Yes, as a bard, you can blast away with sonic damage just as well as a mage--problem being is that your skill points, which would normally go into a wide variety of skills, are now being sucked into Arcana/Spellcraft/Concentration, and your attack buffs can no longer be performed, as they require concentration and standard actions.
    The same goes for the archer-bard, the skill-monkey-bard, and the light-melee-bard. The more specialized you get, the further away you get from the fundamental concept of jack of all trades. And, if you stray from a certain path...well, then you lose out on effectiveness overall. Instead of being able to keep up with the heavy-hitters at 20th level, you're stuck offering your typical +2 Bardic Inspiration.

    While I rather like the idea of 'words as power,' the TrueNamer from Tome of Magic came much closer to a master of language, even though the mechanics behind the system were absymal.
    In addition, the Warlord serves more into the "points of light" setting that 4e tries to put forward, as well as into typical mythology. Western lore is much more focused on the mighty "leader of men" than the trickster-entertainer....which can just as easily be built as a rogue.

    I'm not sure I'm capable of actually convincing you of my argument, but I'd recommend taking a look at the changes made in 4e before critiquing the lack of Bards. The Warlord's a much better fit, and I can't say I'm sad to see his sing-y comrade go.

    ...though it's likely that he'll be back in PH II...

  2. I'm a 4e naysayer, but even I can recognise it is better than 3.5, for most of the reasons you suggest. You made some very good points.

    I have to disagree about the bard too, though. The 2e bard was the glue that knit the party together - he could do quite a few things that none of the others could, and helped everybody in combat. It's a shame they replaced him with the Warlord, who just seems to be a variation on the fighter who can shout a lot. (Admittedly, I haven't read the 4e rules, however.)