Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Fourth Edition, Part 2

"Once per day, when you die, you can detach your spirit from your body."
-Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition Players Handbook, p. 173, from a description of the Arcane Spirit Archmage feature

It's been a while since we shelled out our hard-earned money for a copy of the Fourth Edition Player's Handbook, and we felt it was long past time to catch up.

With a studious eye we've been carefully considering each word - each vowel in fact - of the book. Well, the first half of the book, anyway: we've been preoccupied with other things; movies, comics, and (tragically) work, so we haven't been able to devote the hours we might have liked.

But we've had a chance to meditate on what we have read, and now seems as good a time as any to take a break and discuss our thoughts, our feelings, and our concerns.

As a country, class issues continue to divide us deeply. There are considerations here in need of addressing, and we feel this is the medium to do it in.

Fundamentally, the class differences have been reduced in Fourth Edition. Fighters and Wizards, for all their differences, are now both structured to deal large amounts of damage directly to enemies. So are Rogues and, oddly enough, Clerics. Many of these classes have other options at their disposal, but more often than not, their standard action in any given round will come down to an attack roll followed by (if they're lucky) a damage roll. There may be some additional effects, depending on the "power" they're using, but this is still a type of attack.

Other class features, from stealth to spells to healing, are secondary.

For those of us who have been gaming for fifteen years now, this is a difficult pill to swallow. Dinosaur Neil, we suspect, understands our pain.

Let us begin by addressing the positive. Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, and Rogues have all been served nicely by this edition. More or less, these are all variations of Fighters anyway, and the "powers" system suits them nicely. Each of these are unique enough to distinguish them from the other classes. Reading the powers, the descriptions, and the rules, we found ourselves intrigued and interested. We would welcome the opportunity to play any of these in a 4th Edition game.

The Ranger, in particular, impressed us. Fused with archers, this has become a fascinating class with more options than ever before. At the same time, they've managed to hold onto the feel of the class, so traditionalists will be pleased. Kudos.

We found ourselves a bit indifferent on the newest class: the Warlord. First a quick description of the class for those of you still confused. Do you remember the scene in Return of the King where Legolas, in a stunning display of skill, single-handedly brought an Oliphant to ground?

Yeah, well, Aragorn told him to do it.

While we like the Warlord in theory, we felt that their powers seemed a bit weak, particularly since they themselves wouldn't typically be executing the maneuvers. We find it hard to believe that players will be scrambling for the opportunity to be the Warlord. Were this Monopoly, Warlords would be the thimble.

We're sorry to say it gets worse from here. While Fighters, along with their friends and relations, have profited, we feel that spell casters have lost their allure.

We know that many will argue with us on this point. Indeed, in many ways Wizards gained the most. Hit points have been equalized, and damage-dealing spells finally make spell casters useful in combat.

To the players chomping at the bit to roll up these "improved" sorcerers we ask one thing: do you value your illusion spells so lowly?

Here in The Middle Room D&D mages were never defined by Magic Missile or even Fireball (though we've certainly had hours of fun with the latter). No, playing a Wizard was about versatility, about finding ways to accomplish more with a cleverly timed Phantasmal Force or Affect Normal Fires than a dozen Fighters could would swords and crossbows.

And these spells, dear reader, are gone.

The vast majority of what is left exists to deal damage. Alter Self has been renamed "Disguise". Now you must be sixth level to cast it. SIXTH LEVEL. Aside from some Cantrips (and we sincerely thank WotC for leaving us these at least), there are few spells with versatile descriptions. Oh, there are some "Rituals" in the back of the book. But these are a sad excuse for what we once had.

The Illusionist, the Enchanter, the Summoner... these are all but extinct. The magics that remain are poor imitations. Necromancers may thrive, but that is little consolation.

The Warlock class seems to be the trade. Elements of the missing spell schools are echoed here, but it is a hollow sound to our ears. Once again, their powers revolve around the dealing of crass damage. Even Enchantments have been tainted: most contain a "Psychic Damage" element, whatever that is.

This brings us to the Cleric. Now, we should start by disclosing that we have never had a deep affinity for Clerics, preferring the Priest class, though that has now been taken from us. Fourth Edition has not altered our opinion. The healing abilities have left center stage, since anyone can heal them self to some extent. To compensate, Clerics have been given additional combat abilities.

Making them a type of holy warrior. We aren't certain if lawyers representing Paladins have filed an injunction yet, but it seems likely they'll have to consider legal action of some sort. Even in a fantasy environment trademark infringement cannot be tolerated. It must also be painfully confusing for denizens of the D&D world to tell the difference. Is that particular armor-clad, sword-wielding religious fanatic a Cleric or a Paladin? Not that it matters, mind you: they're both pretty much the same.

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