Turns out there are some very cool additions and changes coming down the Pike for 4E, either already in place or in playtesting now. Of particular note:
- Hybrid classes. One of my big beefs with 4E, mechanically, has been the sorry-ass multiclassing. Spend precious feats in order to be able to dip a toe into the powers of one other class? Lame. The hybrid-class rules currently under playtest and introduced in a recent "Dragon" release* allow you to blend two classes into a third right from the start — and then if you want to go all crazygonuts you can then use multiclass feats to pick up a third. So a crazy build like Balgor, jamesbarrett's "Druid Bardbarian," can now actually be done in 4E. The official release is slated for the PHB 3, due out next year, which will also include Monks. That also makes me happy.
- Backgrounds. This appears to have surfaced originally in the Forgotten Realms Players Guide, but it hearkens back to the old days of "noncombat proficiencies" in 2E. When creating a character, you can choose a handful of "background options," which include things like "Profession: Scholar" or "Raised by Another Race," which provide minor abilities and help provide a mechanical aspect to fleshing out your character. While not as good as simply having a robust skill list (*ahem*), this does at least help towards making the game be about more than "the monsters in this room, then the monsters in that room."
- The online utilities are 85% useful. Grabbing monster stats is very easy, and adventure prep is certainly quicker. By-the-book player characters are also very fast to create and easy to maintain, which I approve of. However, there are a few big holes in the utilities, not the least of which is the inability to properly add custom stuff. Oh, you can override labels easy enough ... I could print out a character sheet for Arshan that said "Anthro (Lion)" in the race slot. But I couldn't add anything that actually applied to that race except hacking each item in by hand. Lions have "Mighty Roar" encounter power? Okay, you can put a placeholder power onto the character, but it won't figure into the math. Etc. Of course, for a single player character, keeping a character sheet by hand is not that hard, and if the GM wants to make an NPC lion, he can add whatever he wants in the custom monster maker. So it's not a dealbreaker, just an annoyance.
As for stripping out the suck, that turns out to be easier than I expected. It's largely a matter of separating mechanics from presentation, and as a programmer that should be right up my alley, right? So here's what I recommend:
- Blot out all the flavor text with Black Sharpie. I don't know what the deal is, but when it comes to flavor, the 4E writers are made of suck. "Shadowfell?" "Spellplague?" "Warbelcher Splatbutcher?" Bah. Ignore anything that isn't specifically a game mechanic, because if you have any love for good fantasy and you read the flavor text, you'll cry. This was probably the biggest hurdle I had to get over, but one I was comfortable with the idea of ignoring everything that wasn't a number, it got much better.
- Cover all the illustrations with black construction paper. Same deal. A world of plastic people using silly "weapons" and shiny, shiny armor while jumping around on floating blocks of real estate? No thank you. I forgive that crap in a video game for the same reason I'd forgive a Giant Enemy Crab. My expectations are low. Pick up some art books by Keith Parkinson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mark Schultz, Larry Elmore, heck, even ol' Frank Frazetta, clip out the pics, and paste them into your 4E books. Suddenly they will feel a lot more awesome.
- Dump the Tieflings and Dragonborn. What can I say? I still hate these guys. I don't mind an individual tiefling as some sort of a freak — Heck, what was Calibos from Clash of the Titans if not a tiefling, right? — but an out-of-the-box core player race? No. No, no, a thousand times no. And stop putting them in every damn illustration, WotC. As for dragonborn, how redundant are they? Just make lizardfolk a player race if you must.
So does this mean I'll be running 4E? I dunno, I may try. The online "Dungeon" series* has an adventure path that is a direct sequel to Red Hand of Doom, starting ten years later with new level 1 heroes, and that has my interest piqued. I also have some cool ideas about how to make 4E work as sword-and-sorcery right off the shelf (mostly by careful selection of allowed races, classes, and class builds), which I will noodle around with at or when I come back from Dragon*Con. We'll see.
*I can't bear to call them Dragon Magazine or Dungeon Magazine. I feel like it would be betraying an old friend.