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Kicking the Tires on 4th Edition D&D

October 5, 2009 6 comments

The amount of vitriol being spewed all over the place over the most recent edition wars going on with Dungeons & Dragons – even more than a year after 4th Edition’s premier – is mind-boggling, but I try not to let it affect me.

I’ve heard a lot of people say, “4th Edition ISN’T Dungeons & Dragons!”  I kind of find this analogous to saying “The current Volkswagen Beetle ISN’T a Volkswagen Beetle!”  But what exactly does it mean?  My basic assumption is that they’re saying the new version doesn’t do the same things that the old version did, and because of that the two versions are completely different products.

That part sounds reasonable, but there’s more to it than that.  When someone makes a statement that bold they usually have an emotional attachment to the subject matter.  What they’re really telling us is that they will never accept the new product in their heart of hearts as being the One True D&D (or the One True Beetle).  Of course the problem with that is that it calls for an absolute definition of truth – which is NOT something I’m going to get into right now, so let’s just stick to the basics, shall we?

When the new Volkswagen Beetle came out, they pretty much changed everything that I’d liked about the original Beetle.  Notably, the engine was now up front, which not only changed the way the car handled, but took away most of the storage space.  To me, the whole POINT of the Beetle was that it was a tiny car that you could cram a LOT into.  I didn’t want to accept that the new car was also called the Beetle.  But, that said, I’ve ridden in one of the new Beetles and it’s pretty much like being in any other small car being made these days.  Not brilliant, but acceptable.

I played the 1st and 2nd editions of D&D growing up and had a good time with them.  I really liked 3rd Edition when it came out and continued to enjoy playing it right up until the release of 4th Edition.  Around the time 4E was being released I began to hear rumors about it being just like MMORPGs, which worried me a little – after all, if I want to play World of Warcraft, I just go to my computer.  Why try to recreate that in a tabletop game?

Then I played 4th Edition and it turned out I enjoyed it.  I’ve been playing in a 4th Edition campaign for a few months now and am having a great time.  Even though, as advertised, it IS a lot more like an MMO.

Not absolutely everything is different.  For example, I think some folks might lose sight of the fact that there were ALWAYS party roles in D&D, even back in 1st edition.  You had to have a magic-user type to take out enemies from a distance.  You had to have a fighter type to generally kick butt, take names and act as a meat shield for the magic-user.  You had to have a thief type to disarm traps, open doors and get at those targets the fighter just couldn’t get to alone.  And, of course, you had to have a cleric to keep everyone on their feet.

Sure, the specifics of how each class worked would shift around from edition to edition, but the idea of party roles was always there.  4th Edition just took a page from the MMO playbook and formalized those roles.  Sure, it makes it a little more like a computer game, but it’s still fun to play and – this is the important part – it doesn’t discount the human element.

It DOES treat the human element a bit differently from the way previous editions did, and I’ll probably talk more about that in another article.  It also behaves much more like a tactical skirmish game than previous editions.  But does that mean it isn’t “really” D&D?

Let’s be honest, here.  The meanings of names – and words in general, for that matter – change from generation to generation.  What we say isn’t “really” a VW Beetle now will probably be called a VW Beetle by our grandkids whether we like it or not, and who knows what THEIR grandkids will call it?  You can try to fight it – good luck with that, by the way – or you can accept it.

I look at it this way.  There are these two different models of cars.  They’re both called the VW Beetle.  I also accept the fact that there are four different games out there each called Dungeons & Dragons.  It’s kind of like understanding that there are millions of guys out there who are all named Jim.  Unless I snap one day and decide that There Can Be Only One, I expect that state of affairs to continue for the foreseeable future.

I’ve by no means abandoned earlier editions.  They still hold a special meaning for me, and I hold out hope for the coming of that day when I can drive off in my original Beetle to the Gamer Retirement Community and play original D&D with the rest of the Old Guard until the end of time.  I’m just saying that while there will always be a place for those originals in my heart, I’m glad I still have enough room in my head for new ideas.

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