Game Day: How I learned to stop fearing and love D&D 4E

Ok, maybe “love” isn’t the right word. “Tolerate” might be better, but the sentiment is the same: for the first time in months, I’m looking forward to my gaming group’s playtest of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

First, some background. My gaming group’s been together for 12 years and we’ve played in the World of Greyhawk that entire time. We’ve had a bunch of different campaigns, adventuring in our home grown city of Obsidian Bay, dealing with the rising threat of the Temple of Elemental Evil, and liberating the Grand Duchy of Geoff from the giant menace, but all that time we were in Greyhawk.

So yeah, our gaming group has some serious history.

We started the game started using 2nd Edition D&D in 1996, then moved to 3.0 in 2000, and finally jumped to 3.5, so we’re no strangers to upgrading editions. But 4th edition isn’t like those others; while earlier editions hewed close to the traditional fantasy lines of Tolkien (with the occasional scaling up and down of power levels), the new edition takes its inspiration from massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and anime-influenced console RPGs like Final Fantasy. It’s an entirely different take on fantasy, and it’s not something that fits well with a traditional setting like Greyhawk or even the more high-powered Forgotten Realms.

That disconnect, combined with Wizards of the Coast’s cancellation of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, the slash-and-burn redesign of the core rules, and a constant stream of “your game sux0rs; our game ROCKS!” coming out of Wizards R&D has done a lot to turn my gaming group against 4th Edition. It’s generated a goodly amount venom over the last few months, as well as a general sense of disillusionment with the new edition. It might be called D&D, the sentiment goes, but it’s not our D&D. Any merits of the new system were lost in the grumbling.

And then I had an idea.

The Rise of the Ur-Flan

The World of Greyhawk’s history stretches back thousands of years. It’s seen ages of great magic, terrible cataclysms, and the rise and fall of some of the greatest villains Dungeons & Dragons has ever known. One of these, the lich Vecna (yes, that Vecna) rose to power 2000-3000 years before the current timeline for our campaign. He was the most powerful necromancer among a tribe that venerated such dark magics. That tribe was known as the ur-Flan.

It was 4E that got me to thinking about this ancient tribe. There’s a lot I like about 4E, but the single biggest hangup my group has with it is what the system will do to our existing Greyhawk game. There’s no way, as the game exists now, to make it work with Greyhawk. But what if we didn’t try and shoehorn it? What if we cast our minds — and campaign — back in time to an era where things were very different, where the super-powered nature of 4E would complement, rather than destroy, our game?

Suddenly, possibilities opened to me. 4E’s Eldarin become high elves from the modern-day kingdom of Celene while it’s “elves” become wood elves from the various forest kingdoms in the Sheldomar Valley. The demon-spawned tieflings and wyrm-birth dragonborn can be explained away as exotic races that went extinct during the Twin Cataclysms. Those wanderlust 4E halflings? Well, maybe that’s the way halflings were before they set down roots (indeed, perhaps their wanderings are why they set down roots). The missing gnomes? Well, maybe they haven’t emerged from the Underdark yet.

Ideas for the classes manifested themselves as well. The warlord screams to be someone from one of the northern nomad clans. Warlocks, with their infernal pacts, could be powerful members of the ur-Flan (who were reputed to be powerful summoners as well as necromancers). And those pesky player characters ascending to godhood in 4E? Well, hero gods are not unknown to Greyhawk … as illustrated by the fact that Krovis came from this time period.

Yes, I thought, there’s a lot of potential here. And done right, it could spawn a lot of good stuff for our original D&D 3.x campaign (e.g. a fortress serves as a major battleground in the ur-Flan campaign; in the original one the players return to the ruins looking for some lost treasure or relic).

Grokking the 4E Ruleset

The rules themselves have a certain appeal to me. Members of my group still grumble about them, but the shift from a resource management game to a strategic management game (e.g. “I can cast this spell x times per day” vs. “I can use my cool ability at least once a combat”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As others have pointed out, giving the wizard the ability to cast a minor energy blast at will, doing 1d10 points of damage, certainly makes more sense then having him run out of spells and have to fall back on that trusty light crossbow (which oh so popular in the literature). After playing my Book of Nine Swords swordmage character in our Greyhawk campaign, I’ve got a decent feel for how a powers-based ruleset is going to work at the table, and while at first glance it feels like it would be limiting — and indeed, it seems like clerics and wizards arcane/divine diversity has been largely nerfed — I think the 4E ruleset will deliver a more rounded, more structured campaign.

That said, our gaming group is chaos incarnate. We like diversity. We like oddball characters. We like having a toolset that lets us build anything we want, and at least at first glance it seems like 4E is taking away a lot of our capacity to tinker and hack at the rules to come up with what we want. We’ve had campaigns that began with four of six characters as clerics. We’ve had others start with four of six as rogues. 4E just isn’t built to support that kind of approach; it assumes the party will have a mix of utility characters, with each one having a specific role to fill. I don’t know that it will fit our style of play, but I’m interested in trying it out and seeing what happens.

After reading through the 4E Players Handbook over the last few days (I got a review copy), the single biggest challenge with using 4th Edition in the Ur-Flan setting is its lack of a “primal power” source, which translates to having no barbarians or druids. At the same time, there are a minimum amount of summoning spells, and no undead-creating necromancy spells for clerics, wizards or warlocks. It’s hard to run a campaign in which the big bads are necromanatic druids when the rules you’re hoping to use do not support necromancers or druids.

I think there are still ways to get this to work, but it’s going to take some serious banging on the rules to get the campaign we want. And it says something about 4E that you can’t run what should be a straight-forward fantasy campaign out of the box.

Campaign Alternative: Planetorn

The alternative to the ur-Flan campaign is my Planetorn campaign setting idea, in which a great and terrible reality storm is tearing through the Alternative Material Planes, and sending huge hurricanes of destruction spinning off into the Elemental and Outer Planes. Each character would come from either a destroyed or threatened plane, and would be on an epic quest to figure out what is causing this storm … and how it might be stopped.

Rather than be constrained by the classical fantasy setting of Greyhawk, players would be able to chose any racial and class combination they wanted, because somewhere in the multiverse, that particular combination is the norm. I’m as excited about this idea as the ur-Flan one, and ultimatley I think it may prove to be the better 4E fit because we won’t be trying to force it to fit our traditional expectations. We’ll be able to run the game engine at full blast, and see just how well it can handle the challenges we throw at it.

And then it was Game Day

So today is finally the day when D&D 4th Edition is released, and my gaming group will be gathering to eat Chinese food, read our 4E books, and decide what we want to do next. I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of grumbling, and no small amount of heated debate, but I’m also hopeful we’ll get at least 4-6 sessions of 4E game time out of this, and maybe — if we like it well enough — we’ll get a good six month run. I can’t say we’ll ever convert our 3E campaign to the new edition — it’s just so different from everything that’s come before — but I am looking forward to the ride.