OK: I’ve read through d20 Fourth Edition – or at least the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and a fair chunk of the Monster Manual – a couple of times now, played around a bit with making some characters, and tried it out. Ergo, it’s time for a bit of a review. There are a thousand other reviews out there, but here’s mine – and I may spread it around the net a bit to help provoke some comments. If there are any major elements I missed, I’d like to hear about them and revise this bit appropriately:
Fourth edition looks like a decent game system for tactical skirmishes and a semi-satisfactory one for noncombat encounter mechanics – although that end suffers badly from the limited number of skills available and the fact that the one or two characters who are good at any particular skill can be expected to have quite similar scores. Expect each character in a group to find a quick excuse to use their two or three best skills during any skill-based encounter. The stock excuse list won’t take long to compile.
Sadly, it’s essentially crippled as far as anything else goes. With everything – including the damage from environmental effects and exotic maneuvers – tied to level, only the special abilities and skill selections really distinguish characters – and there really aren’t very many of either. The game handles world development by ignoring it: none of the parts of the world really interact, there “aren’t very many adventurer’s about” (except when someone wants to bring in a new character, in which case anything and everything is instantly available) and thus the impact of their abilities on the setting need not be considered. Even death is no real penalty, so combat carries no real risk – and combat without real risk is only exciting for so long.
For their part, the monsters are not supposed to attack anyone who goes down – despite the fact that the healers in the group are almost certain to get them back up again momentarily. Evidently their goal is to make sure that the player characters all get to fight – not to win or even to survive.
There’s no trace of a mechanism for researching or balancing new abilities, no origin suggested for the ones that exist, no lost secrets of particular items to quest after, no training to seek out, no ecology, no economy, few or no special abilities of use in day-to-day life, NPC’s are virtually ignored, and – for example – you can’t try to grab a handful of dirt and throw it in someone’s eyes without the appropriate special ability. Heaven forbid I should be looking for strategic planning or – horror of horrors – a flexible magic system. I certainly can’t afford to let the players go off anywhere they feel like when I need to make sure I have an appropriately detailed encounter map ready in advance.
This is a world of magic. My character should have MORE options and abilities than I do in a fight and in their lives. What in the game world STOPS me from throwing dirt in someone’s eyes?
You can’t even readily add such options: given the stress on “budgeting” encounters, you (1) cannot make a character less focused on combat without unbalancing the encounters, (2) cannot make a character more focused on skills without unbalancing the non-combat encounters, (3) cannot make a character who controls or influences creatures or NPC’s since this will – again – unbalance BOTH kinds of encounters, and (4) cannot even add breadth to a character’s abilities by adding noncombat abilities. After all, since the number of abilities is fixed, and you can’t reduce a characters effectiveness in encounters without unbalancing the system, adding powers that were useful outside the encounter system would require upping the effectiveness of their remaining encounter abilities – meaning that (1) their abilities would be notably better than those available to other characters (annoying every other player) and (2) that they could opt to focus on those improved combat or skill-encounter abilities and thus overshadow the other characters.
Given the reliance on encounter budgeting, I just don’t see any way to make anything but variations on combat builds work. If you see a good way, let me know; I’d be pleased, but surprised.
Overall, if I want a few throwaway encounters, and a good fight or two, Fourth Edition is a good choice for an evenings gaming – but I can’t see it becoming much more than that, or much chance of keeping the players interested in a fourth edition game for very long. Given the lack of clear guidelines for letting the players come up with their own new material, adding more character individualization for the players will either mean enormous amounts of work from the game master or constantly spending more money on new books – and I’ve got plenty of other good games which don’t require either.
What made Dungeons and Dragons – in several different incarnations – appealing to many gamers was the way in which it lent itself to the creation of fantasy worlds. The background and depth of those worlds made them fascinating, and the players lent them vitality. Fourth Edition is a nice tactical system, good for small-scale combats and dungeon-crawling, and specified encounters – and I may use it that way – but I really was hoping for a lot more than that.