Dungeons and Dragons turned 40 this year and a new edition was released. It is being called simply: D&D or Dungeons & Dragons. No number added, no advanced moniker. A starter box is being sold to provide a start up point for new players (it covers just some introductory rules with pre-made characters so a group of players can jump in and try it out before committing to something more. The Basic Rules is available as a free PDF download here. Anyone can take a look, read it and even play it before deciding whether to invest in the printed books (which contain more character options and other extras.) All of this is very encouraging in tone and intention, and I have read many articles and blogs by all sorts of gamers giving the new edition a read and/or try. I have also read many who give it a qualified thumbs-up. Comments range from this being their new system of choice to: its okay, but they are going back to “You can insert other system or edition here.”
Like many, I followed the public playtest--an unprecedented event (at least, it was to D&D’s parent company) and I was impressed. The rules were intriguing, the idea of having a voice in the development was appealing and it seemed they were trying to follow through with the promise of drawing from D&D’s rules history and player feedback to create a game for nearly everyone, even promising rules modularity (player groups can add to, or take away pieces of the rules set to suit individual play styles.) This design, if carried out, would be a formalization of something from the beginning of the game. The oldest editions can be pulled apart, sections altered or rewritten, and played without the entire game collapsing. The original rules were not elegant, but they were very customizable.
So, in theory, one could play the new version of D&D as if it were:
Edition 1 (Advanced, or AD&D) Formalized and comprehensive rules (even though every rule was handled with a different mechanic), intended to provide consistency of play even if you played with different groups. Characters were very individualized, everyone did something special or unique.
Edition 2 (Second) A few tweaks to the AD&D rules, including more survivability (the beginning of adding “plot armor” to the player characters, so no one would feel they “lost” the game.) And more character options (a booklet for every class and race!)
Edition 3 (3.5) Lots and LOTS of crunchy rules (a rule for everything; no arguments, unless it was over rule-interpretation.) Although, most were handled with the same simple die roll: easy to remember which dice to use. Also, more character options (create nearly ANYTHING you can imagine.)
Edition 4 (4E) Boardgame-like rules. Epic characters (players are unquestioningly the HEROES, complete with full “plot armor” and a menu of options and cool maneuvers (with names, like “Falling Star Strike” and “Rub Some Dirt On It”!)
I like this notion of being able to play your way as a concept; I love tinkering with game rules to run things the way I--and those I play with--enjoy most. I also like several aspects of the new rules set:
Advantage/Disadvantage a simple mechanic for modifying any die roll: most challenges are decided by rolling a single die; if you have advantage, you roll 2 dice and pick the best, disadvantage means you roll 2 dice and pick the worst. In other editions there were, literally, pages and pages of +1, +2, -3, etc., modifying various die rolls for various conditions. The advantage mechanic is a convenient “on the fly” rule simplifying things during play.
Optional special abilities As characters progress, they gain new benefits and features; this can be handled as simply or as complex as a group wants. This is evidence of the modularity they spoke of in the beginning. I like this as a limiting factor in the menu options at the table; I want players to be able to do whatever they imagine, not feel limited to just what is written on their character.
Ease of creation for the referee 4E did this really well and it seems to have carried over to the new edition. There is a lot that goes into a session: trying to give each player a chance to shine, providing challenges, making it all fun (for both the players and the referee) It shouldn’t feel like work to prepare for a night of D&D; this new set seems to understand that for the most part.
What I don’t like is the execution in some areas of the new rules (admittedly, these rules could be removed or altered):
Superhero aspects of the system.
Healing. I understand it is no fun to lose a character; especially when you put a lot of time and creativity into it. And I am not suggesting that characters should be easy to kill. But there is something a little too super about the way characters can recover from near death wounds in this edition. Jeopardy is what makes us care about a character; immortality becomes tiresome.
Magic. Even basic spells are phenomenal. Apprentice wizards are a little more like Nicholas Cage and a little less like Mickey Mouse.
Character advancement and improvement.
Characters begin with too many special abilities--in my opinion. It is far more satisfying to begin simply and gain in power than to begin powerful. Of course, it is a matter of taste. Would you rather be the commoner who aspires to kill the dragon? or the dragonslayer who seeks to slay another?
The stat block for monsters has too much mechanical detail (it looks very much like 3.5, which pushed me away from that edition and keeps me away from Pathfinder) I don’t want to memorize--or even refer to--a single monster with its own character sheet, especially when I may need to juggle five or more different monsters in a single session.
As an overall complaint, I don’t see the promised modularity of the system yet. Currently it is as customizable as any edition has been, so it may be a non-complaint so far. And the modularity may be something yet to come, but if this is the base from which to decide what to add from here on out, I am not satisfied that it is basic enough (since I would want to remove parts to run it my way.)
Finally, despite the niftyness of the Starter Set ($20) and the convenience of the basic rules with promised updates (all free), I am very discouraged by the price point of the printed books (Player’s Handbook, $50; Monster Manual, $50; Dungeon Master’s Guide, $50; $30 each on Amazon.) Even considering inflation since I purchased my old edition AD&D books (1980’s, $20 each), that is too much money to invest in a rules set I will not use in its entirety.
I think I will sit this edition out and instead stick with the nostalgia of my classic (Moldvay) version.