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November 1st, 2009

Well, what could be a more appropriate way to spend Halloween night than pretending to be an elf and fighting monsters, right? So it was that we gathered at the Rathbun house to narf on ham and candy, tsk in disappointment at how the kids just don't know how to trick-or-treat these days, and finish off sirfox's running of Keep On the Shadowfell, our foray into D&D 4E. Having gone through the entire adventure, I am now quite prepared to say that we've given 4E the fairest of shakes.

The verdict: "Meh." Not a reflection on sirfox's GMing, mind you — he's a fine GM and I thoroughly enjoyed his furry 3.5 game. No, it's all about the system.

For years I've heard complaints from gamers feeling like they were doing little more than moving pieces around on the gameboard with D&D, but I never particularly experienced that myself before 4E. Even the second edition days, when I was cursing the rigidity of classes and wishing that D&D had a proper skill system, I didn't feel this straight-jacketed into "You can choose from this bucket of powers or that bucket of powers. Any characterization that happens from there is entirely up to you and is really inconsequential."

This starts right in the core character creation process, with races that have random powers for no apparent reason (since when do elves teleport? [1]), classes that don't mean anything (no, fighters don't do damage, that's the rogue's job), and weapons that are there to fill a mechanical slot rather than have any resemblance to reality (until the flintlock, the bow was absolutely superior to any other personal ranged weapon -- but only rangers can use it effectively?).

So basically, the players' side of the screen pretty much sucks. Unless you're itching to play a character exactly like how one of the nonsensical classes is built, you're SOL. Yes, you can make a hybrid or take multiclass feats, but unless you're hybrid/multiclassing with another class within your "role" (i.e., striker to striker), you're just diluting your effectiveness.

The other thing, and this may be just a matter of the specific module, but it sure doesn't seem that way, is that the whole "delve format" and "balance by encounter" mindset leads to a string of staged fight after staged fight; certainly dungeons always had the danger of coming off this way, but rarely has it actually felt like that to me before now. Instead of "exploring a dungeon," I felt like I was following a flowchart. "Ding! You've reached the next encounter. Here's the map, here's the monsters, here's the terrain-hazard-of-the-fight. Go!" Granted, my character had a power that was made to push monsters around, but I pushed more enemies into pits in this module than I had in the rest of my 25-odd years of gaming combined. Because a) every encounter very specifically had a pit with a monster standing next to it saying "Push me!", and b) more often than not it was the most effective thing I could do, by simultaneously damaging the baddie and taking him out of the fight for X rounds while he climbed back up out. (A couple of monsters, I shoved 'em into the pit, waited for them to climb out, then shoved 'em back in again. It was funny a couple of times, but not exactly a great moment of heroic adventure.)

So basically, 4E, from a players' POV, lives down to every cliché complaint people have made about D&D in the past. "All combat?" Check. "No roleplaying?" Check. "Just about selling the next supplement?" Double-check. "Videogamey?" Triple-OMGYES-check. If 3.x ever felt like they were just tying the miniatures-skirmish game together with a pasted-on framework, 4E is much, much worse about it. It's a mediocre skirmish-fight game, and as a roleplaying game it's utter crap.

Now, the weird thing of it is, on the GM side of the screen there is some absolutely brilliant stuff going on, lots of things that can be retrofitted to d20/Saga Edition and give you the best of both worlds. And really, if your players don't care that the character classes suck (I don't get it, myself, but there are plenty of players who basically feel like it's all the same), 4E is a perfectly runnable game.

All that said, if sirfox wants to keep running it, I'll keep playing it, if only 'cause I'm always jonesing to be a player instead of the GM, and I'm certainly not going to spend the session kibitzing about the system. But I will say here and without reservation that I sure hope 5E, whenever it appears, brings us back up out of this new D&D dark age.

-The Gneech

[1] Don't give me any guff that eladrin aren't elves. They are.
We believe we've found the Next Car; if all goes well, we'll be shedding a good-bye tear for Bruce and the Platinum Pearl tomorrow night, and bidding a hearty welcome to a 2006 Nissan Murano, which will then of course need a name.

I thought of Rita (for "Rita Murano"), but as that's laurie_robey's mother's name, we decided against it. I also thought of Dan (for "Dan Murano"), but as our former boss was named Dan, that's probably not a good choice either.

-The Gneech

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