Warning! Adult language and themes! No sex, though.
Much of what counts as my free time lately has been spent in another world. I know, I know, blasphemy, right? But one cannot eat just cheesecake. One must occasionally have cookies and cream.
I've been running my girlfriend through “Keep on the Shadowfell,” the first Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition module. After many nights of plying through the wonders of 4E, I wanted to put some of my thoughts down on virtual paper, in a meandering, often tongue-in-cheek style. There may be logic holes. Watch your step.
Combat is faster -- more or less.
There is an efficiency to the rules that 3E lacked, so in general, turns proceed faster -- with the obvious caveat that, with a new rules system, there's still a fair amount of page turning as you grow accustomed to the way the new rules work. That's to be expected, especially considering how 4E is an even greater departure from the D&D "standard" than were previous rules updates.
It does play more like an MMO.
Take that however you will, for better or for worse. I’m still ambivalent. my girlfriend and I find ourselves equating certain events and circumstances to events in City of Heroes/Villains. Classes – and monsters -- are categorized by their official “roles:” Defender (Tankers and Scrappers, in this case), Artillery (Blasters), Controller (Controllers), Strikers (Stalkers), Brutes (Brutes), and so on. There are Elite mobs. You’ve got powers with fast recharge, and powers with slow recharge. You have taunt powers. Oh, and Immobilize still pisses off the baddies – you freeze them in place, and they spin around and angrily blast you with their ranged attacks.
The names of the level tiers – the three groupings of levels -- made me snicker: Heroic Tier (1-10), Paragon Tier (11-20) and Epic Tier (21-30).
Your hit points will bounce around like a hyperactive chihuahua.
The fortunes of battle shift wildly from turn to turn. That was true in 3E, but it’s even more true now. Be prepared to make almost constant changes to your hit points total, both in increases and decreases. As my monsters pounded away at my girlfriend’s paladin, her HP would drop, then either through her own powers or that of the NPC cleric, they'd go back up again. There was a lot of feverish scribbling going on.
If you play CoH, it’s much like having an empath defender on your team and a trayful of green inspirations.
Death isn't nearly as close as you might think.
Along the same lines as the HP bouncing, hitting 0 or negative HP isn't nearly as dire as it might've been in previous editions. The NPC wizard got thrashed and dropped like a wet ragdoll, but within almost one round he was back on his feet with 29 HP, thanks to the efforts of my girlfriend’s paladin and the NPC cleric.
So you get X number of “healing surges” per day. They aren’t exactly like healing potions, but they’re close. You can take one Second Wind per encounter, allowing you to use one of your healing surges, which heals you X number of points, and gives you a +2 bonus to your defenses until your next turn. That’s handy. The part I’m having trouble with is this: Some healing powers allow your allies to spend a healing surge outside of their turn. That’s handy as well, but I question why it’s necessary that YOU spend one of your healing surges based on a spell someone ELSE casts. That’s not across the board, mind – some powers simply heal you a certain amount and don’t require you spending anything, and certain powers like the paladin’s Lay on Hands has them spend one of THEIR healing surges.
I suppose, since there’s so much healing going on in any given encounter, WotC wanted to impose a limit so you couldn’t just keep healing away like an empath defender on potty break with Heal Aura set on auto-fire.
Move your ass.
WotC has stressed this repeatedly, and it's absolutely true. Mobility is a key factor in many encounters. If you're more accustomed to having your fighter plant his feet in the ground and just bash the crap out of a monster with his four attacks per round, you'll need to rethink your strategy. For one thing, you get only one attack per round, period. First level or 20th level, it doesn’t matter.
Monsters, NPCs and PCs can and will -- and need to -- move around a great deal, to take advantage of flanking maneuvers, special abilities which are tied to movement (there's a ranged fighter/elf feat that actually gives you a BONUS to your attacks if you move a certain number of squares in a round). Thus…
You'll need to brush up on your mapmaking skills.
I've found that having encounter maps/battle grids (and using tokens, dice or miniatures to represent characters and creatures) is essential. You can see this as a way for WotC to make more money by making people purchase miniatures and other accessories, but if you try to mentally visualize everyone's relative positions, you'll quickly go mad. Do yourself a favor and stock up on stacks of graph paper.
Perhaps most people do this already, although I haven't. With some exceptions, the D&D battles I’ve experienced have all been in my head. I don't really mind the additional expense and time involved, however. It's rather fun playing with miniatures and sketching out maps. I'm already strongly considering some of WotC's Dungeon Tiles. No, I haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, but they look fun and useful.
Having so few spells as a wizard is a drag, but you also never run out.
I’m not thrilled with the drastic reduction in “known spells per day” for a wizard, as I think it hamstrings the wizard’s versatility, but with the never-expiring at-will (once per turn) powers, you will always have at least a couple spells at your fingertips, even if they might feel like pea shooters. That limitation also comes with another bizarre twist:
Eventually, you’ll forget how to cast a fireball.
Every so often in 4E, you have the option to replace one of your existing, lower level powers with a newer, shinier and presumably better power. Thus, according to the rules, you’ll no longer be able to cast those lower level spells – like fireball. What’s a wizard without fireball, I ask you?
Yes, you can choose to hold onto lower level powers, but in doing so, you’ll be unable to pick up newer powers. Also, the damage isn’t as scalable as it used to be. One of the perks with spells such as fireball as your level was your damage multiplier (up to a certain maximum). Level is still a factor in some powers’ damage, but not to such an extent as before. This is also a pity because…
Your wizard is no longer a terrifying engine of village-razing destruction.
Gone are the halcyon days when a high-level wizard could look around at a sleepy hamlet, say “this sucks,” and let fly with a blast that left nothing but scorched earth. Well, I suppose you still can, but it’s going to take a long time, and people will complain. Wizards are much more about crowd control than dealing out soul-destroying amounts of damage. In essence, they’re more team players than they used to be. This is a good thing in the eyes of those who complained about how “overpowered” wizards were in 3E. Like so:
PC: “Hang on, I need to gather up 15 6-sided dice for my damage role.”
Yes, it was silly. Yes, it could tip the scales pretty freakishly. But I liked it, damn it! It’s almost purely ego, but I loved the fact my character could walk into a room full of baddies and make them clutch each other, or themselves.
I say “almost,” because since I’ve been playing almost exclusively in solo campaigns for years now, being able to hold my own, ON my own, has been critical.
There was also a sense of accomplishment in having a high-level wizard. It meant you survived the terrible single-digit levels, when you had fired off your single magic missile and had to hitch up your robe and haul ass while the dire bunny chased you down, gnashing its little teeth. Being able to state “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” was the reward for level after level of tedium and humiliation and hiding behind the drooling low-INT, plate mail-wearing thug. That’s not so much an issue now, because…
The low levels aren’t nearly as painful and dreary as they used to be.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a powermonger, and have viewed the low levels as the tiresome period you struggle through before you get to the good stuff. Perhaps WotC had that in mind when they re-balanced the levels, because right out of the gate you have more hit points (wizards have 1st level hit points in the DOUBLE DIGITS!), more variety, and basically more to do at the low levels in 4E. It feels more rewarding. You aren’t running around laying waste to the countryside, but you aren’t so much the one-hit-wonder walking target that you once were.
Magic items aren’t so magical anymore.
There are fewer magic items available, at least in the core books, and none of them appear to be the multi-use powerhouses of 3E. You may look at the pages upon pages of magic items and say “Huh?” but look again. The variation is more in the bonus it provides. Delver’s Armor +1 is quite similar to Delver’s Armor +5.
Did you like the Staff of the Magi, the Holy Avenger of the wizard class, with a dozen powers from weenie to “holy shit?” Say goodbye to it. Most items have a single power, and most of those limit its use to once an encounter, or once a day, and nearly none of those powers last very long. You don’t just put on your Ring of Invisibility and spend the rest of the day sneaking into dressing rooms. You activate it, spend a few minutes unseen, and then have to wait until the next day to use it again.
I imagine this is the rationale: Characters shouldn’t need to be as dependent on magic items to fill in the blanks for exhausted spells and such, since their powers recharge faster and more readily. In a way, this is nice – a wizard doesn’t have to lug around a bandolier full of wands in order to stay the duration during a protracted battle. Failing that, at the end of the day, he was just the robed guy with a stick.
But yes, the Holy Avenger is still around, however. Thank God.
Duration doesn’t endure.
Related to magic items, most magical effects last a round, or an encounter. “Five minutes” is the new standard for most long-duration abilities. There are exceptions, especially in the new ritual spells, but they are exceptions. And speaking of rituals…
“Hang on while I cast this. Shouldn’t take more than an hour or so.”
Rituals encompass spell effects which in general are longer lasting, and have more complicated effects. They are, as far as I can tell, exclusively non-combat spells, with casting times from 10 minutes to hours. This is where a lot of the wizard’s signature utility spells ended up (comprehend languages, for example). It’s not a bad idea, but some of the implementations leave me scratching my head.
Take Detect Lies. It has a 10-minute casting time, and lasts five minutes. So, if you’re pumping someone for information, you’re supposed to take a 10-minute coffee break, cast the ritual, then run back and tell the shifty-looking halfling to talk fast?
That one blip shouldn’t invalidate the entire ritual system. I’ll admit I’ve yet to have any character cast a ritual.
“Why, yes, God IS on my side.”
Paladins kinda rock now. It seems to me that paladins got a pretty considerable boost from 4E. They’re certainly flashier. Their anemic divine spellcasting has been dropped in favor of their at-will, encounter and daily “prayers” which do all sorts of funky stuff. They’re tailor-made to be the meatshields they’re intended to be, but they can still kick the holy crap out of baddies. Paladins in virtually every RPG system, online or offline, get maligned for being not-so-effective fighters combined with not-so-effective clerics. While I’ve seen only a low-level (4th level) paladin in action, I’m extremely eager to take my beloved 19th level paladin out and see what holy mayhem I can wreak. However…
“Is he evil? How the hell should I know?”
Paladins can’t detect evil anymore? That was one of their signature abilities. Bah. Train up Insight, I guess.
“Where the hell is my ride?”
They don’t get special paladin mounts, either. As a consolation prize, they have some special movement powers they can use to get around the battlefield faster – one power allows them to switch places with an ally – a squishie wizard who’s about to get ganked by a troll, for example. Still, I’m not about to have my paladin’s greater Pegasus taken out back and shot, so I’ll figure something out.
Speaking of animal companions…
“Where’d my familiar go?”
Wizards don’t get familiars. They were deemed superfluous. Ouch. Rangers don’t get animal companions, either. True, they were squishie little things that could pose a significant risk to wizards in combat, and they didn’t make you uber. So, WotC looked at their ineffectiveness in combat, ignored their roleplaying assets, and axed them. Speaking of missing companions…
“Did Biff the Barbarian just disintegrate? And where’s that irritating bard and the tree-hugging druid?”
Many core races and classes are absent from the new core books, although most will re-emerge in expansions. These include classes such as: Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Bard. Some races, too, like gnomes. Want to play your favorite gnome monk again? You’ll have to wait a while, and then plunk down some more cash.
So, what’s the bottom line?
The new rules do show a lot of promise, but there are many changes I’m not wild about. I imagine I’ll be crafting some house rules to compensate for what I consider the weak spots and oversights. It’s flashier, it’s more instant gratification, and it’s more “epic.” That may or may not be your speed.
Okay, what’s the REAL bottom line?
Yes, it is fun to play.
“Welcome to Faerun! Here’s your complimentary--*BOOM* *BANG* *BASH* *RIP* *TEAR* Jesus H. Christ!”
There is no goddess of magic, because she was murdered. The Weave heaved up and dropped down like a thermonuclear bomb. Roughly one-third of all arcane spellcasters are either dead or insane. Well, actually, they’re all dead -- because it’s 100 years in the future. That familiar landscape isn’t so familiar anymore.
Welcome to the post-apocalyptic Forgotten Realms. Here is your spellscar. Yay!
If you’re unfamiliar with the Realms campaign setting, the drastic thematic changes won’t mean much to you. As the oldest and most popular D&D campaign setting, however, the Realms has a lot of shared history (and yes, a lot of baggage).
So, the Realms designers were faced with a challenge – a vastly different rules system, including a vastly different spellcasting system. How do they make it work? How do you implement a dramatically world-changing system? You dramatically change the world. And what better way to do it than a HAPPY FUN APOCALYPSE? Cue the REM song.
“That’s great it starts with an earthquake…”
Cyric and Shar concoct a cunning plan to kill Mystra, Goddess of Magic, thinking it would be a good idea. They succeed, and yet another Mystra dies. There’s a problem, though. Mystra controls the Weave. Without that control, magic goes mad. Cyric and Shar apparently skipped this session of Godhood 101. So, in the wake of Mystra’s death, as Cyric and Shar high-five each other, the Weave goes utterly batshit insane, and the entire planet is blanketed by a cataclysmic magical whammo. Think angry Robert Jordan. Wizards and other arcane spellcasters find their magic violently ripped from them, leaving a hefty portion insane, or dead. Those who remain are utterly stripped of magic.
Whole swaths of territory are blown to bits. The landscape in places gets twisted and screwed with. Seas drain. Mountains fall down. Dogs and cats are living together.
The Spellplague, as it is called, rages for about 10 years, before magic finally settles down, without a Goddess of magic to guide it. Those few wizards remaining pick themselves up and start getting their shit together, figuring out how to use the “new” magic all over again.
Time passes – roughly 90 more years – bringing us to the “present day.”
Oh, yes. WotC decided there are “too many notes.” Well, too many gods. So they’re getting rid of a bunch of them, and they’re not being very delicate about it.
Like this – Tyr, the Greater God of Justice, a favored deity for paladins and others of the “Lawful Good and violent about it” set, gets paired up for a marriage with Tymora, goddess of luck, for reasons passing understanding. Something about balance. Helm gets tapped to act as a sort of chaperone/escort/note passer, and while all this note passing is going on during Home Ec class, wires get crossed. Tyr says “omgwtf dood ur totally messing wit my mojo,” de-friends Helm on Facebook, writes a few nasty posts about him on LiveJournal and challenges him to a duel to the death. In said duel, Tyr kills Helm.
Since Tyr has effectively violated his own code of conduct – being god of justice and all – and because there’s an ironclad “no killing other gods, dickhead” rule set down by ubergod Lord Ao, Tyr is likely going to take his ball and go home to Valhalla. Torm will probably get a promotion and a shiny new corner office as the new God of Justice.
Wait, wait, didn’t Cyric kill Mystra, aided and abetted by Shar? Well, yeah, so? Um, what about that cardinal “no killie” rule for the gods? Eh. Tyr and others put Cyric under house arrest for 1,000 years – before the Tymora thing, of course. So, naturally, Cyric will escape somehow. WINNAR!
So what happens to all current adherents of Tyr, who rely on him for their powers and, in some cases, their very existence?
WotC: *shrug* wtf dude shut up already
I should point out that Tyr’s inevitable fate was proposed by a single forum poster on the WotC official boards. The poster advocated, in an admittedly well-reasoned fashion, why Tyr should go. The developers read this post, basically said “awesome!” and said they’d likely incorporate it into the campaign setting. So, points for listening to your customers, I guess. Detractors of this plan have been shouted down (I wasn’t one of them, although I strenuously dislike the whole idea).
WotC has a leeeeetle bit of a PR problem, and they’re not reacting well to player critics. On the one hand, sure, if you bust your ass for years on a new game, then visit forums to read all the pissing and moaning, one could get a bit grouchy. Still, WotC gets incredibly irritated when anyone raises their hand to say “um, what about my existing characters and campaigns that I’ve had for years/decades? I kinda don’t want to throw them away, and, um… help?” In fact, they get irritated whenever anyone brings up anything pre-4E. They wish to forget all that has come before, and your whittering on about old stuff makes them angry. And you wouldn’t like WotC when it’s angry. WotC smash.
They’ve thrown out a couple bones – “oh, just have ‘em jump through a fucking time portal, you whiners.” They also backpedaled slightly on their “no, we’re not publishing conversion tips so stop asking” stance and posted, on their web site, a vague and snippy-sounding conversion guide for 3.5E characters, complete with passive aggressive attitude and everything. It’s really quite something. I’m amazed someone in marketing didn’t notice this and say “Hey kids, maybe we should soften this up a tad? A little less ‘fuck you,’ maybe?”
Bottom line, their stance is this: Shut the fuck up about 3.5E. It doesn’t exist. It never did. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. We’ve already sent out cancellation notices on every piece of 3.5E source material, and we’re gathering all the returned books for a gigantic bonfire. We’re going to roast marshmallows.
OK, so what the hell just happened?
The 4E Realms sourcebook comes out this August, but WotC has released a fair amount of teaser material laying out what changes are coming. The sheer breadth and depth of the anger and disgust from old Realms veterans on message boards is considerable, but I have a feeling WotC is still proceeding “as planned.”
And the bottom, bottom, BOTTOM line?
I think, in time, I can get behind the new rules. I don’t know yet about getting behind the new Realms.
Oh, and I’m running “Keep on the Shadowfell,” using the Realms conversion article published online in Dragon magazine, but I’ve set it in the pre-Spellplague Realms.
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