Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why I Won't be Playing D&D 4.0

This isn’t a blanket condemnation of D&D’s 4th edition. Just further realization on my part that D&D just isn’t where I’m going these days with my gaming. This latest revelation was instigated by this description of magic item slots in 4th edition. Apparently, in 4th edition you can’t use magic rings until your character reaches 11th level.

This really rubs me the wrong way. And I know I’m being silly, and I understand why they’re doing this. This is the natural outgrowth of the CR system. In order to accurately judge what sort of challenges the PCs can tackle, the designers need a relatively accurate idea of what the PCs are capable of. Saying things like, “just hand out fewer magical items” doesn’t cut it. If your PCs don’t get the right magical items at the proper levels, they’ll fall out of sync with the CR system. The CR system is a triangle of relationships, PCs to monsters to treasure, that work in tight partnership to ensure proper challenge and proper reward at every stage of the game.

And this is what makes me cranky, especially as a DM. In order for this very cool “aid” to building adventures to work, I have to essentially let the folks in Seattle tell me what monsters I can use, and what treasures those monsters can be guarding. Yes, I can ignore that and do whatever I want, since it’s my game. But if I do, first, I’m utterly tossing out the CR system, which is one of the big selling points of the modern incarnations of D&D. Second, if my players have played a lot of D&D 3.x, they come to my table with certain expectations. One of those is that the CR system will be in place. Even if I tell them it won’t be, they won’t really listen. They’ll make decisions based on all the assumptions about challenges and resource management that go along with CRs.

This annoys me, because we didn’t use to play this way. Please indulge me while I put on my Grumpy Old Man hat. Way back when I got my copy of Moldvay Basic, our models were the myths and legends we read in school. And in those myths and legends, the heroes were almost always horribly outmatched. The cyclops was way outside Odysseus’ safe range of foes. When Sinbad was attacked by a roc, he had no chance of killing the giant bird. The first two billy goats were no match for the troll. Robin Hood was incapable of beating Little John with staves or fists.

So when I challenged third level characters with dragons or a medusa or a handful of minotaurs, nobody batted an eyelash. The players knew they might be faced with foes who could not be outfought, and that not every solution to every problem would be found on their single-page character sheets.

And weeeee liked it!

Yeah, the arbitrariness is nothing new. 4.0's wizard can’t wear rings until tenth level, and my Basic D&D magic-user was incapable of learning how to properly swing a sword. That’s annoying, but that’s not what really turns me off the game. Putting my game on the sorts of rails the CR system requires turns D&D into something I’m just not interested in playing. Does it make it an easier game to DM? Certainly. Does it make it a better “gateway drug” to the RPG hobby? Undoubtedly. But it also becomes a game that’s just not fun for me.

UPDATE: Faerie Dragon over at The Velvet Dicebag thinks that the folks at WotC may have failed to hit their stated goals as well.


Brian Murphy said...

Great observation man. As an old-school gamer, the CR system has always bugged me. Even as a youngster, I could tell which monsters and challenges were appropriate. And if I did over- or under-shoot, it added versimillitude--why should all encounters have to be perfectly matched to the PCs? You're absolutely right--that isn't how the old stories worked.

Now, I'm not kidding myself. I'm sure I'll buy the 4.0 PHB when it comes out. But like yourself, it's looking more and more like I won't be running the new edition of D&D.

trollsmyth said...

Er, whoa...

Had to do a double-take on your name, there, Brian. You even spell it properly, not like all those fake "Bryan" fellows you might meet. ;)

Right now, my wife and I mostly play an ugly mish-mash of 2nd edition AD&D with 1st and a sprinkling of 3rd. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, but it sings for us. Still, the ugly is beginning to show through, and my wife has begun expressing interest in trying something else. The top contenders right now are Green Ronin's True20 and a homebrew fantasy heartbreaker.

Thanks for the comment, and I'll be sure to keep my eye on The Silver Key.

- the other Brian Murphy

Anonymous said...

I believe that restriction on rings has been removed. I can't find anything in the PHB or DMG suggesting that characters can't wear rings until 11th.

If it had been a restriction, you could just institute a house rule removing the restriction.

I don't see that you have any unsurmountable problems with the CR system. I've run high-magic campaigns where characters received more powerful items than recommended; I just started using policies like adding 5 to the creature's to-hit rolls, or bumping up their HPs by 50%, and so on, but left the CRs unchanged. It's not a big deal, and I don't think I'd hold off on upgrading just for that reason.

trollsmyth said...


I plan to give the game a look, and might even play if someone I know to be a good DM invites me into a game. But having flipped through the books, I haven't seen anything that's convinced me to spend the time and money to run the game. I'm still open to having my mind changed, of course, but my current plan is to run a personal hack of Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord D&D for my next campaign, and probably a home-brew system for the game after that.

- Brian