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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Halfway through the D&D 4E Playtest Campaign

by Ken Newquist / July 25, 2008

We're about halfway through our Planetorn play-test campaign, with the fourth session happening today, and perhaps another three or four to go before it runs its course. This milestone has me reflecting on where the campaign's been, where it's going, and what I hope to accomplish before it's all over.

Today's adventure finds our heroes having returned from the alternative material plane of Fierth, a sand-blasted realm which is threatened with destruction by the machinations of the red dragon Sulara. Our heroes have determined that the dragon is attempting to break open an ancient sealed portal to the elemental plane of fire within Mount Infernus. The mountain is the focal point of Fierth's ley lines, and when the portal falls, it's feared that the entire plane will go up in flames.

They also realized that the dragon was far too powerful for them, and have since retreated to Sigil to consult with their master, Zilanderan, the swordmage and agent of the Obsidian Tower who'd sent them to investigate the plane in the first place. He was pleased with their actions, and has given them a few days to explore Sigil (and spend the gold they liberated from Fierth) before being dispatched on a new scouting mission. As such, today's session will be heavily role-playing oriented, and will focus on the character's attempts to navigate the Lady of Pain's infamous city.

Lessons Learned

I think the single biggest change in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, more than the per-class powers, more than the exceptions-based ruleset, more than the death of multiclassing, more than even the loss of the gnomes, is the change in the style of play from individual-based to team-based.

In 3rd edition, the focus was on building the best damn character you could, and it gave you a thousand tools to accomplish that task. You could certainly play as a team with your fellow campaign members, but you could just as easily spend engaging in the sort of creative chaos that my gaming group's engaged in for the last eight years. Sometimes we work together, sometimes we do our own thing, but for the most part, the battles get won, the bad guys get defeated, and the treasure gets distributed.

In 4th edition, it's all about the team. Yes, you can still optimize your character to some degree, but where it really all comes together is in teamwork. The game's about building your character to work and play well with others, and battles are about setting each other up to best make use of one another's powers. It's about more than just flanking; it's about clerics and warlords giving their allies extra actions to move about the battle field, it's about the rogue ducking enemy attacks to drag a friend to safety, thus setting up the wizard's area effect spell, it's about using "aid another" and other tactics to bolster a fighter's attack bonuses so he can lay waste to the monster that's threatening the group.

The paradigm just got dropkicked into another universe. And as a group, we haven't determined if we like where it's landed (though at least one player has said in no uncertain terms that he will not play 4E).

Aside that, the game feels every bit as complex as 3rd edition, just in different ways. Combat still has a lot to keep track of, except that we've traded most of the ongoing spell effects for ongoing "mark"-style effects. As first level characters, the players also have a lot more options (at least in terms of pure powers/class abilities) than they did in 3rd edition. The game at low levels plays like a 5th or 6th level game in the previous edition. That's a good and a bad thing: good because that's are 3rd editions sweet spot, bad because it adds a lot of complexity to low level play.

We're managing it fairly well through the use of glass beads and other tokens, but those expecting a simpler combat are going to be disappointed.

That said, it may be that this is as complex as it gets -- players (especially spell casters) don't gain the huge number of 'powers' that they'd have in 3rd edition, where a wizard is able to cast something like 40 spells a day at 20th level. I expect that the ramp up in power between 1st and 30th is much more gradual in 4th Edition. Don't get me wrong -- high level characters will still be able to do some amazing things, but the sheer complexity of those characters won't be anywhere near that of 3rd edition, and I expect that high level play will move along at a similar pace to low level play. That said, we haven't actually playtested that yet.

Looking Ahead

At this point in the campaign, we've tested most of the combat rules, and run through the flawed (at least as written) skill challenges from the DMG. Since the game uses an exception-based ruleset (meaning there's a small core set of rules, and then a gazillion powers that break those rules) it's impossible to truly test the entire system in seven or eight sessions, but I think we've given it a pretty good shake so far.

That said, there are a bunch of basic rules that I want to try and test over the next few weeks. I've itemized them further in the article. If there's something you'd like to see us check out that hasn't been covered in one of my earlier playtest articles, please let me know by leaving a comment or emailing me at nuketown@gmail.com

The thing I'd like to try out most right now are artifacts, which aren't entirely appropriate given my characters' level, but I think it's a cool mechanic so I'll likely introduce one anyway. I'm not sure if I'll go with something canned or create a new one from scratch, though I'm leaning toward the later.

Playtest Checklist

Environmental Rules

  • Balancing
  • Squeezing
  • Low light vs. bright light areas
  • Breaking down a door
  • Force open a portcullis

Combat Rules

  • Cover vs. Concealment
  • Bull Rush
  • Total Defense

Magic Rules

  • Artifacts
  • Holy Symbols (magical)
  • Rituals (Comprehend langauges?)

Misc. Rules

  • Disease

DM Rules

  • Class Template
  • Monster Design
  • NPC Creation
  • Optional Rule: Fumble

High Level Play

  • Paragon level game session
  • Epic level game session

Because our playtest campaign will probably end around 4th level, we won't get to the high level stuff immediately. That said, we want to try higher level play, so I expect we'll level up the Planetorn characters to 15th and 25th levels and then run one-shot playtests for each tier.

Comments

I have got to say, based upon all that I've heard and read, that I still have not determined if I am to go with 4e or not. So far, it really does appear to be simply change for the sae of change. It seems as if too many of the 'old favorites' have been sacrificed in favor of a sleek new system which, in the end, is just as cumbersome as the old.

I do not like to infect my game self with my real life self, but it is my thought, as an attorey and Social Security Claimant's Represetative, that a complex set of many rules with mutiple choices and variations is more flexable and can respond to the inumerable situations presented in a campaign.

Honestly, I don't think it's change for the sake of change. I think they had a plan, and I think they executed it. They wanted a game that focused on team work, reigned in the complexity, and introduced video-game oriented mechanics. They accomplished all that in spades.

But whether it'll work for our group? Well, I don't know. If everyone loved it, we could make it work in one way or another (particularly once PHB II comes out in March) but we'd need a unanimous decision to do that ... and we're not there yet.

OK, maybe it's not just change to a new edition so that Hasbro can sell more books, but I do be;ieve that many of the new ideas could have fit into the 3.x system. Many of 4E's powers could be feats and ritual magic seems to be very cool and usefu;. If tean play is what your after, a sourcebook (PHB3) for the existing system could have done the trick. I would not be surprised if some small publisher did not come out with such.

Some of this could be worked into 3rd Edition with an "Unearthed Arcana 2" or "Player's Handbook 3", but then it would haven't been a new edition ... and wouldn't have fueled another generation of sales for Wizards.

And I don't begrudge them that; every product goes through a cycle, and 3E is certainly no exception. It's just well, when I look at the finished product, I get nostalgic for Third Edition, or for what could have been if they'd followed the Star Wars: Saga Edition fork.