Once again, I'm going to take a look at a system that I have had the chance to play with. This week, that system will be Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. For connoisseurs of gaming, D&D might be considered required gaming if only for the pedigree and history involved. (I know some would argue this with their dying breath, but in the world of marketing name recognition means a ton.) Of all the editions, however, most will agree that 4e seems to be the bastard child of the bunch. At least until D&D Next comes out, and then we'll see where the Edition Wars go from there. My experience with 4th isn't as thorough as I'd like it to be, given that I've only had a few one-shots in it as opposed to a full-on campaign, so make of this what you will.
Before I start to break this thing down, there is one thing I want to put up front here. 4e was designed with the intention of bringing in new players. Whether or not it succeeds as quality gaming, it did succeed in expanding the player-base. If you like 4e, cool. If you don't, also cool. Either way, stop the hate. It's doing you a favor in the long run.
Sleek and Streamlined
In comparison to earlier editions, 4th did change a number of components such as the number of skills, and the way class abilities work. Whether or not this was a good idea remains debatable. I like the way they handled skills, having them cover a wide base and not having to worry about spreading skill points too thinly. Some may argue and make a case for granularity, but then again fewer overall skills takes up less room on the character sheet. A small sacrifice in crunchiness for the sake of ease of use is okay in my book. As for class abilities, or 'powers' as they call them. These are broken up into At-wills, Encounters, and Dailies. All classes have some mix of these types of abilities which leads some to believe the classes are a tad too similar. While I can't argue that the system suffers from overbalancing I think the homogenization of classes is a case of hyperbole. While individual abilities have similar elements, their overall composition and the way they work with other class abilities gives each class it's own distinct flavor. On the down side, the number of options available and the way they are layered is definitely restrictive to more advanced players with broader character concepts.
I'll also briefly touch on the character creator on the D&D homesite. If you have access to it, it's a wonderful tool. It's very possible to make a character inside of 5 minutes with this thing. Also, it'll print out cards with your abilities on them, which is incredibly useful so you don't have to go look something up. Our group actually ended up using every ability they had since they had them all laid out in front of them, instead of forgetting that one ability buried in text somewhere on a character sheet as some of us are prone to do.
Two of the biggest complaints I hear are that it feels like an MMORPG or a miniatures wargame. While I see the comparison, my mind visualizes this as a developmental mobius strip. Dungeons and Dragons evolved from a miniatures wargame. MMOs evolved from video game RPGs which evolved from Dungeons and Dragons. The idea that concepts translate back and forth isn't exactly far-fetched. Whether it's too much is a matter of personal taste. One thing I will say on the matter is that the 'powers' used in the game have a high emphasis on teamwork and positioning, which probably is the cause of this 'complaint'. From my own experience I have no problem with this. Our group has rarely had so much coordination between PCs.
While the quality of sourcebooks is fairly decent, I think the amount of content is a tad lacking. The bestiaries are full of other versions of the same monsters from the other books. It's kind of like the whole pallet swap thing found in video games. We have one monster, we just recolored it to look like a dozen ninjas. The setting books are a mixed bag as well. I like the Eberron setting, and Dark Sun is okay. Personally I would have loved to have a full 4e version of Planescape, Dragonlance or Ravenloft. I don't see why they need a half dozen books for various parts of Forgotten Realms. I've never liked Forgotten Realms due in no small part to me reading Ed Greenwood's early books, and just not liking them for reasons I can no longer articulate. I don't necessarily have any complaints about classes or available races. In fact I happen to like the selection available. Most of this is personal taste, so you may feel differently here.
At the end of the day, it's a functional system. To most, it's biggest sin is that it's different from earlier incarnations. For people just getting into tabletop RPGs, it's actually pretty darn good. It was the first system I GM'd with only a minimal amount of exposure beforehand. For more advanced players, you may find it a tad lacking in some areas. While it may not be for everyone, it's not nearly as bad as some people make it out to be.
For now, eat, drink, and Stay Classy!