Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Fourth Edition, Part 3

For some time we have been considering the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Until now, our musings have been constrained to the realms of theory and literary criticism. But things have changed: at long last we have put dice to paper and miniatures to tabletop.

Yes, The Middle Room has gone to war.

And we've returned to tell of the game itself. More specifically, we've come to speak of the combat system, which permeates the rules like a gelatinous cube engulfing a gnomish bard.

In practice we were pleased with aspects of the combat system and bothered by others. There is something inherently satisfying about slaughtering one's enemies, and, by this metric, the edition does not disappoint. Even at low levels we found our characters able to hold their own, some more effectively than others. We were somewhat startled to find the group's Ranger to be more effective than we'd have expected, and we find ourselves wondering if this class may be a bit over-powered. Further study will be needed to confirm such suspicions, however.

We found ourselves less enamoured with the game's reliance on a grid and miniatures. While we expected this to a degree, we were surprised to the extent. In previous editions miniatures always seemed like a tool to keep track of complex situations: in Fourth we felt as though they took over the game.

Our response to the system itself is somewhat more philosophical. And when we think of philosophy, we naturally think of superheroes. To understand the Fourth Edition's approach, one needs to first understand the difference between the Justice League and the X-Men.

The Justice League is a team of highly competent heroes with diverse abilities and talents. When each member acts, they do so somewhat individually, accomplishing something only they can do. An action undertaken by Superman is therefore essentially about Superman, no one else.

The X-Men operate under a different dynamic. Again, each member has unique abilities, but it is the combination of their talents which yields victory. Wolverine is most effective against a Sentinel, for instance, when thrown by Colossus. Cyclops's optic blast may be a distraction for Beast to rewire the villains' computer network.

The Fourth Edition was designed to function more like the X-Men than the Justice League. A lonely Warlord or Priest, for instance, is nothing special, but put them on a team with a fighter, a wizard, and a Rogue, and their powers elevate the group as a whole.

It sounds so good on paper. But the simple fact is that, in our experience, the most fulfilling gaming experiences are individual character moments. When we think back on our greatest moments in combat, we find they almost always involve a single character achieving greatness.

Like Batman defeating Dr. Destiny, one might say.

This isn't to say that Fourth lacks these instances: in some ways it provides them in more ready abundance than any other edition. But due to the game's reliance on powers, there is a prepackaged feel to many of these heroic actions.

There is sense in which gaming is a surprisingly narcissistic activity. While we respect the attempt to focus on cooperation, we are skeptical such a shift will pay off.

Even so, there was much to enjoy. We have only begun to explore the opportunities, races, and character classes, and will need more time to determine whether our initial observations hold up.

Either way, we'll keep you posted.

No comments: