It happens every year, right after GenCon. I don’t know if it’s the hangover of a great week of gaming, which I missed this year, or if it’s the plethora of new information that GenCon brings us, but this time of year always makes me ask the question: what next? Where do we go from here? Normally we get a very clear picture of what’s forthcoming over the next 12 months at the D&D Preview Seminar. However, this year we only got highlights for the next few months. The primary reason for this is that Mike Mearls only just took over as the guy in charge and things are in flux. Or is there something more than that going on? Conspiracy theorists, think what you will.
If you want to know if there is something more going on in the background all you need to do is read Mike Mearls’ Legends & Lore column on the D&D website. If you’ve been following Mike’s column for the past little while you’ve gained some insight into what he’s thinking, the questions he’s asking the community and what it means for the future of D&D. I’m sure that 5e is being discussed behind closed doors, but I have no idea when it will be released. Actually I don’t care because I’m having a lot of fun playing 4e right now.
However, I am interested in where WotC is going with D&D and what the next incarnation will look like. In my mind the best way to figure out where you’re going is to look at what you’ve done in the past. I have no doubt that Mike and his team are doing this. But just to fulfill my ego, here are my thoughts on the subject.
Just to have some fun with this I’m going to break down my thoughts on 4e D&D as a skill challenge. Each element is assigned a success or a failure.
D&D Essentials – Success
That’s right I said success. A lot of people, myself included, had misgivings when the Essentials line launched. It seemed like a really big step backwards for 4e. It simplified the power selection system and in my opinion some of the classes are rather dull, leaving me with little to do on my turn.
However, D&D Essentials is an essential (pun intended) way to convert new players. The original release of 4e D&D was slightly too complex for a new player to fully grasp, especially if they joined a group that was getting on in levels. The Essentials system is simple, but still fun and does contain some level of depth and choice. It just isn’t overwhelming like core 4e releases are with all the Powers supplements.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here. I strongly feel that the Essentials line is what 4e should have been at release. The Player’s Handbook should have been a follow-up release to add a different level of complexity to character creation.
I would hazard a guess that the Essentials character progression may form the base line for character creation in a future release of D&D.
Tactical Combat – Success
I’ll say it up front, combat can be slow, but it is so deep and rich in the options available that any slowdown in game play is acceptable. The myriad of options available to players allows for a rich tapestry to unfold during combat.
Creative DMs bring monsters in waves, keeping players on their toes. The resource management from healing surges, daily power usage, to when to go nova all need to be considered during combat. Combat in 4e, more than any other edition, requires synergies between characters and requires teamwork. The result of not meeting this standard is still a fun experience, but when you take it to the next level and embrace tactical combat you end up with an experience unlike any other. In short you can end up with some truly legendary encounters.
Minis – Success
This was almost a failure as WotC cancelled their mini product line. They have however rectified that situation and are resurrecting minis. I feel they have also gotten things right the second time around. Rather than the sealed-box collectible approach, we are getting blister packs full of monsters we love to have our players kill. Or perhaps it’s that we love to use to kill our player’s characters. Pick your poison. Either way minis are invaluable in providing the rich tactical game play available to us in 4e combat.
All Crunch, No Fluff – Failure
The PHB1 has four sections worth talking about.
- Making a character.
- The character classes.
- The rules or how to run combat.
- Magic items.
The character class section contained over 150 pages devoted to eight character classes. Each class got around two pages of fluff. It was all crunch.
At the time it was new and exciting, but it also made my head spin. I mean how do you keep all those powers straight? Add to this that the players learned nothing about the world they were playing in. You had to read the DMG for that, but as a player isn’t that book off limits? Ok maybe not, but even then there was a noted lack of fluff in 4e. The books and supplements that have come out since haven’t don’t much to change that.
The Powers line of books contained just that, more powers. When you look at the ratio of crunch to fluff, the ratio is staggering. Now to be fair the fine folks at WotC have made a successful insight check about this very issue. The Essentials line was a step away from crunch. There were less options and slightly more fluff about the character classes. I haven’t seen the new Neverwinter Campaign Setting, but my understanding is it is solid with a lot of great source material (a.k.a. fluff) for DMs and players to use.
I think one of the major reasons for not having as much fluff is the tactical nature of combat and the desire to present different options to players. This resulted in more powers being created to support this. It also stems from the decision to only release two campaign books for each campaign. With the release of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting WotC has broken this rule as The Forgotten Realms now has three books. But look at Dark Sun, one of its books was a monster guide. Surely there is more creative material they could dream up for Athas. It hasn’t been active as a campaign setting since AD&D 2e and it did beat out Dragonlance, Planescape and all the other worlds that have existed for D&D.
Abundance of Character Class/Race Combinations – Failure
Truth hurts. D&D 4e has about 16 too many character classes. Type “class” into the Compendium and you will see 65 choices under the class dropdown box. Granted 25 of those are Hybrid, but that still leaves 40 character classes available to a first level character. I won’t even start about Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies.
The worst part is that there are three Fighter options, three Wizard options, two Cleric options, two Paladin options, etc. In short there are far too many classes available and too many variants of each class. Of course this is something I’ve said before, I mean how many classes are too many?
Add to this the number of races available and the combinations are mind numbing. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are cool, but how do you support all this material? I mean people (all three of them) are crying for Shardmind Runepriest support!
With the Character Builder being online WotC know exactly what classes and races are being played. They know that no one is playing a Shardmind Runepriest. I’m guessing that an overwhelming majority of players are playing class/race combinations available in PHB1 or the Essentials books. That’s only 18 classes. Ok actually it is 9, but the Essentials release has variations of the different classes (Knight vs. Slayer, etc).
I understand that WotC is a business, that they need to release new products to make money or we won’t have this great game to play. However, 65 character classes with about as many pages of fluff to explain how the class functions in the world does not make a deep role playing experience. Reread my thoughts on crunch vs. fluff above if you need a refresher. Toss on Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies and it’s way too much.
Now, I have had players tell me that they love all the choice that 4e makes available. I agree with these players. I like choice too, but 65 class choices are too many. As I’ve said in the past, cut down the core classes, give us more Paragon Paths to make that choice more interesting. I mean why can’t the Warden be a Paragon Path? Sure it wouldn’t be the robust class it is now, but the class itself could lend itself to two or three different Paragon Paths.
Granted you really only need to choose 1 of 4 roles which is the most profound choice you make. Great Segway don’t you think?
The Role System – Success
4e D&D introduced the role system. An official way of categorizing what your character brought to the table, err party. I’m a fan. In fact I would argue that the roles are the new character classes of 4e and that the existing character classes are sub-categories within the role.
The balance that the role system brings to party design and encounter design is intriguing. While one character from each role is preferred, it isn’t essential. In fact parties of only strikers can be rather devastating, if somewhat limited in their abilities.
Public Play – Success
Between LFR, D&D Encounters and the upcoming Lair Assault public play has been a boon for D&D. Our weekly Encounters review is a popular column that routinely sees good traffic and is a great way for players to share their experiences with D&D Encounters.
The desire by WotC to go out and engage veteran and new gamers alike has been a win. Players are in their FLGS playing D&D, meeting new players and having a great time. WotC has responded by providing some top notch encounters with great maps. Each season seems to build on the experience from the previous providing for a great gaming experience.
Magic Items – Failure
I am not a fan of magic items in 4e. My opinion is all the daily and encounter powers that items grant further confuse and complicate combat. It seems almost every game someone asks to use an item after their turn ends because they forgot they had it.
My other complaint is the sheer number of items that are available. I would wager that there are more than a handful of items that have never been equipped by anyone and that never will. Like feats, there are a handful of items that everyone takes. Other items support highly specialized builds and are only selected for that purpose. To be sure there are a few gems hidden here and there that many players don’t know about.
Again my complaint here isn’t the sheer number of items, it’s the addition of item powers. 4e combat is already a very rich experience. I believe the addition of item powers detracts from the flow and pace of the game.
Three failures results in what? A new edition? Of course the subjects I selected as a success might be a failure for you and vice versa. Either way it is interesting to look back on 4e and pick out the elements that have definitely enhanced the game and those that are questionable. Have I hit the mark with my comments or am I way off base?