Tuesday, 28 April 2009

4E State of Play 1: Splat!

So the new game has been out for (counts fingers) nine months, and a lot has happened. Many flames have been flung, and continue to burn online. D&D players around the globe have arranged themselves into their appropriate corners and now eye each-other uncomfortably across the edition gap. I, personally, have DM'd (counts) almost a hundred hours of 4th Edition, and played in the odd game too. How has the game moved on since it was released? What has changed? Is it any better now? What lessons have been learned?

While it was being previewed I liked what I saw of 4E, and when it actually came out, I loved what I saw. Part of this was exhaustion with the previous edition, part of it was a general readiness for something new, and part of it was that I wanted to start a regular group, and 4E seemed like a perfect opportunity to do it. I could get a weekly game going, and look forward to enjoying the very early stages of a new edition and all the supplements and excitement that came with that, all in the company of new friends.

Getting that new group together was a simple combination of patience and luck, and while the dreaded Player Conveyer has seen a lot of action in the last couple of months, it seems like every time someone has to leave, someone else is waiting in the wings to take their place. The group is now six players strong, and everyone seems to be having a blast. Certainly, 4E doesn't seem to have put anyone off, and everyone got to grips with the rules very quickly.

Which is not to say, over the months, that their quirks haven't become apparent. I remain unconvinced by Skill Challenges, still. I've tried a couple of permutations, and the errata certainly helped to clear some stuff up, but it remains very hard to build an abstract SC into the flow of the game without arresting it into some weird gamey twilight zone where the trick is to guess what the DM wants, rather than where the roleplaying is taking you. Admittedly, the feedback on my SC's has been generally positive, but that's more because I haven't put myself in a situation where the problem manifests rather than the problem actually having been solved.

Others have embraced this as a feature, and it's something I might do myself in the future, but for the moment I much prefer SC's to merge seamlessly with the game and consider my job to be successfully complete only at the point one of the players looks up and says, "XP? Oh, was that a Skill Challenge?". The jury is still out, really.

Speaking of errata, there's been a steady flow of it. On the one hand, you have to ask whether such updates should be necessary, on the other, being in the business I'm in, I know the kind of errors that can creep into large, complex projects contributed to by many people over long periods, so it doesn't bother me unless the error is egregious. Instances of this are light (the Skill DC table being completely revised a few weeks after release being one example), so I take it as positive that Wizards continue to update the game as they do, and honestly, only the really major changes require any application at the table at all.

As you might expect, splat books have come thick and fast, usually at the rate of one a month. Nine months into the edition, we're already seeing Player's Handbook 2 and Monster Manual 2 coming out of the gate, which include exactly the kind of core expansions that Wizards talked about back in August last year. For the most part, the player-oriented splats have been excellent, crunchier than a McVities Hobnob and bulging with options. The extreme dissociation between options for player and options for DM's this time around means that you shouldn't be going to books like the PHB2, Arcane Power or Martial Power if you're looking for inspiration on character background or flavour, though; take what you can get from the class concepts themselves and the general thrust of their Powers, and do the rest yourself. Those babies are all business.

One artefact of this player/DM split is that I don't find myself paying much attention to the player's side of the screen. The various Power books and the PHB2 make great browse material, but I don't have to know them like I had to know the options from their 3E equivalents, because those were the building blocks I would be using for future NPC's and villains. This can be fun when someone unleashes a Power I know nothing about, but can also cause delays when I'm asked to adjudicate on some weird exception or corner case, but overall I think has a positive effect on the game. It frees me, the DM, to focus on stuff I really should be worrying about, and importantly, gives the players a niche they can call their own. Result? Smug grins and glinting eyes on both sides of the screen.

For the DM, we've had the likes of Open Grave, Manual of the Planes, and Draconomicon. I have found all of these books to be excellent value, especially MotP which has inspired whole tracts of my campaign's upcoming Paragon and Epic tiers. The 4E Points of Light concept, and the implied setting Wizards have built around it, is turning out to be pretty fertile ground for the game developers, and by building a campaign world which is sympathetic to those ideas, I've been able to meld published material with my own work very successfully. This is partly a function of necessity, I admit (like most DM's, I don't have as much time as I'd like to prep the game), but mostly because, well, I like what they're doing.

Adventures have turned out to be a different matter, with some disappointingly uninteresting offerings. Keep on the Shadowfell was an unashamedly C+ Must Try Harder effort; Thunderspire Labyrinth, while inexplicably having the reputation of a roleplay-rich-environment, was nothing more than a couple of linked dungeons, albeit with some cool encounters; Pyramid of Shadows is more of same, yet another dungeon crawl even if the villain is quite imaginatively villanous. As for the Paragon and Epic adventures, I have yet to do more than browse them, so I guess I'll comment on those some other time.

I'm an unashamed fan of the new format, which is unusual and stands out from the crowd even if the two-book idea is hit-and-miss, but unless P1 through E3 take a drastically different approach to adventure design, I'll be doing little more than I am now: mining them for material but completely re-writing the plot framework. (Note: this still makes them value for money, but I would at least like the option of not having to do any work!)

So up until now it's been all about consolidation. This is not surprising, as the books we're reading today have probably been in development since the time of the first PHB. Old favourites like the gnome, the half-orc, the bard, and the druid are now all present and accounted for. Wizards can have familiars again. The vague pencil outlines of the implied setting have been filled in. My 4E shelf is now acceptably saggy in the middle. The system has not turned out to be hopelessly broken. Unlike previous editions though, what Wizards have printed is only half the story...

Next: the DDI.

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