Why Not D&D 4e?

Posted on March 29, 2009

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Some of you have undoubtedly been wondering why I won’t be blogging about the fourth edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game. I had initially intended not to touch the question at all, but after some consideration I’ve decided to present my reasoning.

This is not an anti-4e screed. I’ve seen enough of those, and even though I agree with some of them, I’m not interested in trying to slag a game that’s doing quite well and is making a lot of people happy. The recent release of the second Player’s Handbook (hereafter PHB 2) recently was noted at #8 on the Amazon lists. That’s a remarkable feat, and it means good things for the hobby in general.

I haven’t played 4e, however, even though I’ve had access to at least the original core books since they came out. I read through the PHB and was convinced that this was not my game. I will present at least some of the reasons why, and then I will talk about some things I do like about 4e.

Tactical Map Focus: I do not like using miniatures in RPGs. They disturb my immersion in the game, removing me from an immediate experience and putting the focus on “my little man on the map”. I also do not like the rigidity of grid maps. I much prefer the flexibility and imagination requirement of combat without a battlemap and minis. D&D 4e is heavily focused on the minis and the map (utilizing an inconsistent square abstraction). Ironically, if movement were done wargaming style, using a ruler or tape measure and 360-degree freedom, I would enjoy it more. I am reminded strongly of console “strategy” RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics when I see a gridded battlemap.

MMO Presentation Elements: Like it or not, D&D 4e’s presentation is informed to some degree by the highly successful MMORPG market. Its power design and its monster presentation especially echo games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2. It is true that fantasy MMOs originally took their inspiration from D&D, but that inspiration was filtered through a lens to specifically fit the online electronic gaming milieu. D&D is now reappropriating that already-filtered inspiration, but not refiltering it to remove the MMO-specific tropes. I can’t argue that this isn’t a smart move, making the game appeal to MMO players and drawing back gamers who might have drifted away from D&D because WoW had more appeal. I do not care for the presentation, however.

Rigid Special Ability Acquisition: Every D&D 4e character gains the same kind of powers at the same time — attack, utility, and so on. It’s right there in the advancement chart. I find this to be a hypercorrective approach to the issue of character balance. I would rather have a variety of different kinds of powers that can be gained at each particular level, much like spells in earlier editions. That would allow me to customize my character with greater control. As it is, I feel that some individuality has been sacrificed in the focus on balancing powers.

As previously mentioned, there are some things about 4e that I do like, rather a lot in fact. These include:

Cosmology: This will be blasphemy to a lot of players of older editions, but I don’t like the Great Wheel or Planescape. I enjoy the simplification of 4e’s cosmology, and the breadth presented by the new planes. I am intrigued by both the Feywild and the Shadowfell and the opportunities they present. I like 4e’s cosmology enough to appropriate it for 3.5e games.

Differentiation of the Sorcerer from the Wizard: It took a year, but the new sorcerer class has a quite different flavor from the wizard. The wizard itself is quite different from the old standard arcane caster, of course. I never thought “spontaneous arcane casting” was worth everything the sorcerer sacrificed while remaining essentially a wizard with a different casting stat.

Gorgeous Visual Presentation: Some people say this in an effort to damn with faint praise, but I mean it. The 4e line is beautiful. The new logo is my favorite D&D logo ever.

Worthwhile Low-Level Play: I am so done with “zero to hero” gameplay. I don’t care about nobodies. I am a nobody; I don’t want to roleplay as one. I want a competent character who can kick some ass and perform worthy deeds. In earlier editions this means starting at higher levels than first. 4e gives you the ability to kick some serious butt right out of the gate.

Beginning of the End for Alignment: I think alignment is dumb. If you have to spend so much time explaining it to people, and they still don’t seem to get that it’s meant to be a descriptor and not a straitjacket, maybe it’s time to chuck the concept. Allegiances are much more interesting and flavorful. I don’t like the unbalanced five-alignment compromise 4e presents, but I like that it means alignment is fading away.

So there you have it. While I see worthiness in some things 4e has done, the problems I have with it are dealbreakers. I’ve been told that it’s perfectly possible to play 4e without a battlemap, but I really don’t see how without a significant investment of time converting things out of the map-focused system. That still wouldn’t fix my problems with the presentation and the power acquisition, however. Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is not for me, but I will shamelessly mine the parts I consider good for use with my prefered version of D&D, the 3.5 edition, as well as Microlite20.

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