I started playing Dungeons and Dragons way back in the early days of the original boxed set. I quickly supplemented my “Basic Dungeons and Dragons” set with the “Expert” and “Companion” editions. I also dabbled with Star Frontiers and Gamma World. I didn’t play with any regularity, as few of my friends were as interested in role playing games as I was. I played occasionally with Charlie, the older brother of one of my sister’s friends; but most of my time was spent pouring over the rulebooks on my own, and devising campaign settings that I would never use.

I found a few friends with whom I could play the occasional adventure, but it was never an on-going campaign. We’d have quick dungeon raids, or generate wildly over-powered characters to pit against the strongest monsters just to see what would happen.

We played, I think, a total of two or three sessions before everyone’s enthusiasm waned.

I was a Big Brother at this time, and my Little Brother was a creative, gaming kind of kid. It didn’t take long for us to realize our shared interest in role playing, and we quickly formed a small gaming group with a friend of his. These two helpfully explained to me that the new Dungeons and Dragons product was an evolution of the AD&D I knew. I purchased the core rulebooks, and set to learning the new system.

It took me a little while to get comfortable with the new rules, but I eventually gained some mastery. We took turns for a little while DMing small adventures for one another, with no real long-term continuity. It was fun, but the purposelessness of it started to wear on me. I wanted a grand campaign – either as a player or a DM – to keep focus between sessions, and to develop our role playing skills. My Little Brother and his friend were only too happy to cede DM duties to me so that I could try to execute a campaign idea I had been formulating.

It started out well, and I enjoyed the challenge of role playing the NPCs and developing the game world with sufficient detail to keep them interested. Eventually, though, it became clear that my Little Brother was a power gamer: min-maxing his character and looking for every rule ambiguity to exploit. His focus was not on character development, or story integration, or role playing. Over time, the gaming sessions became more heated, and less satisfying to everyone.

As an aside, there’s nothing inherently wrong with powergaming, and min-maxing. I, personally, don’t like to play that way, and would prefer to focus on story, role playing, and social interaction. It was a tremendous failure on my part not to run the kind of game that my players wanted, instead trying to force character development and role playing out of them.

When my Little Brother and I decided to amicably part ways, my role playing effectively stopped.

Of course, I did manage to find a group which I hope to join, and they’re playing a Fourth Edition adventure. So I needed to learn the new rules. My initial reaction, after reading the new Player’s Handbook, was “Yuck!” I suppose for first-time players, with no previous experience, the new rules are a fine way to get started. For someone with substantial familiarity with the previous editions, though, this is a marked departure and feels like learning an entirely new game. Action Points? Healing Surges? All new deities? What the heck?!

It is my opinion that the 4E rules greatly homogenize the race and class differences into a more static set of core rules. I suppose this makes some things easier, but it grossly simplifies the thing that I think really makes D&D interesting: the fact that the characters and classes really are substantially different! 4E presents the notion of “character builds”, which are like class archetypes. For example, the Rogue class has the “brawny rogue” and “trickster rogue”, the former with a focus on strength-based attacks and the latter with a focus on deceit and deception. I suppose these two archetypes do succinctly sum up the major ways in which you could play a rogue, but it feels forced to me to so blandly describe the wide differences between a thuggish ruffian and a smooth-talking confidence man. I know that the rule books can’t tell you how to use your imagination, but I’d like to see something a little less mechanical in the class build descriptions. Some room – and encouragement – for personal development of a class into a unique character.

The other thing that struck me most about 4E rules is that right from the beginning your character is an exceptional person, clearly standing out from the crowd of everyday life. You start with far more hit points. You heal easier and more often. You have daily and encounter powers which allow you to dole out more damage. Heck, the core races now include Dragonborn and Tieflings (essential demon-born). In short, being a first level character seems far less risky than ever it was before. I suppose this makes the game more fun for new players at low levels, but I’ve always seen the risks of life at low levels as excellent role playing learning opportunities: you need to chose your fights carefully, you need to be cautious with your application of offensive and defensive magic, and you need to figure a lot of things out in order to survive to make it to higher levels. With the 4E rules, the increase in power suggests a far more tactical, combat-oriented approach to gaming, even at lower levels. Sure, a good DM can still execute a great character-driven story with little fighting, but the core rules seem to place a real priority on combat, so my guess is that a fledgling DM will play to those rules.

I’m going to give 4E a shot with this gaming party, if they’ll have me. There’s a rumor that the group is dissatisfied with the 4E rules, too, and may revert back to 3.5 edition rules. As such, the character I developed for the game I’m going to join was built using 3.5 rules. He’s a 2nd level halfling thief/cleric (one level in each). I had a lot of fun putting him together based on the 3.5 rules. I think he’ll be a lot of fun to play, given some of his strengths and weaknesses. He’s a weak second level character, and I’m already planning how to play him in ways to help ensure he lives to third level. I submitted the character to my DM for review, and he provided me the same character modified for 4E rules. Wow, what a difference. He’s no longer quite as weak. The benefits of multiclassing are now essentially gone. The 4E version has no clerical spells available to him. The skills and feats I had selected have been consolidated into more generic containers. For example, I had previously selected both Open Locks and Pick Pockets as skills, and these are now represented by “Thieving Skills” (or something similar). This makes it less important to select between developing an expert pick pocket or an expert lock pick, since both of these wildly different tasks are represented by the same skill. Similarly, skill points are handled differently. In 3.0 and 3.5 rules, you acquired skill points with each level, and chose how to allocate them amongst lots of different kinds of skills. This allows you to be “okay” at a couple things, and “great” at a few things, making for a more well-rounded, versatile character. Different classes earned skill points at different rates – rogues get 8 skill points per level, while clerics only get a measly 2 skill points per level! In 4E rules, you’re simply “trained” or “untrained” in a skill, and there’s no other advancement in a skill. So you train your character in “thief skills” and that’s it: no mastery of picking pockets or lock breaking. I suppose – though haven’t confirmed – that this major change is supported on the DM’s side by drastically reworking the way Difficulty Checks are computed for skill-based tasks. I suspect DCs are much more streamlined, so that there are fewer really high DCs in order to make simply “class training” sufficient to give you a better-than-average chance of passing a skill check.

As of right now, I really hope the gaming group falls back to 3.5 rules. Either way, though, if I stick with them it looks like Wizards of the Coast will get more money from me as I buy the new books.

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