NerdFilter: Should I buy the 4th Edition D&D Rules Books?
November 3, 2008 6:28 AM   Subscribe

NerdFilter: Should I buy the 4th Edition D&D Rules Books?

Has anyone here played 4th edition? Is it any good? Reviews are mixed, but I find with anything remotely dorky people are fucking crazy. ("They got rid of THAC0? I will kill you Wizards of the Coast!")

I haven't played D&D in a very long time. I have the 2nd edition books, so I don't really have an emotional attachment to the 3rd edition rules. I'm also not entirely sure I'll be able to get anyone to play the game again, or if I'm actually interested in playing D&D again. There is a part of me that feels inexplicably drawn to the game all of a sudden. The 3 core books are on Amazon for $75, which would have been a crap load of money when I was 14, but isn't going to break the bank now that I am older and gainfully employed. That said, I really don't want to buy these books if they are a big pile of suck.

This is pretty rambling as questions go.
posted by chunking express to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
As a fellow nerd, I would suggest finding a gaming group (through your local gaming store, online, convention, or otherwise) and joining in a game or two of 4th edition. Most people would be willing to share their books for a few sessions, and you would be able to figure out if you are interested or not before making a purchase.

If you do intend on playing regularly, then I would definitely advise using the most recent edition. I haven't hit up anything past 3rd edition myself so I can't help with the reviews, but it can become difficult to find players for older editions surprisingly rapidly.

I hope my rambling answer helps with your rambling question. :)
posted by Gneisskate at 6:47 AM on November 3, 2008

My group stuck with 3.5 since we had so many books, and we didn't like the 4-years -and-then-buy-new-books routine that WOTC seems to be pulling.

Having said that, we *did* try the 4th edition rules and they seem pretty slick. Big advantages are faster combat, casters that don't run out of spells, clerics that aren't strictly healing batteries and better options for melee characters. 3/3.5e can be a bit clumsy comparatively.

If you are looking at the future 4e makes sense since 3/3.5 books are no longer going to be made by WOTC, but you could alternately find someone that has moved to 4e and is selling their 3/3.5 stuff cheap.

If you do go 4e, don't be surprised if 4.5e or 5e is out in less than five years...
posted by WinnipegDragon at 6:47 AM on November 3, 2008

If it were me, I would stick with 3.5. I personally had a lot more fun with it than when I played 4th ed. To be fair, if all of your friends want to run a 4th ed campaign you'll want to have the books, but if you are playing with people who don't care, 3.5 is better.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 6:48 AM on November 3, 2008

I'm also not entirely sure I'll be able to get anyone to play the game again, or if I'm actually interested in playing D&D again.

Find playgroup first. Then decide on what books you need.
It could turn out that the group is more interested in playing Vampire or Shadowrun or something after all.
posted by jozxyqk at 6:50 AM on November 3, 2008

Oh yes, sweet sweet Shadowrun. That and Call of Cthulhu are getting more play in our group than any edition of DnD at the moment.

The 3->3.5->4 shift really turned us off in general.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 6:57 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: I'm coming back to D&D after a _long_ hiatus. The last edition I played was 1st edition AD&D. Really.

4th Edition is interesting. They've standardized everything in an attempt to balance play. I really like it - but it isn't really D&D any more. It is something new and equally interesting in my opinion.

My big issue with it is that it is 100% based around combat. _all_ of a characters powers are combat based (with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions). There are the concept of rituals - spells for outside of combat - but they seem tacked on. Even traps and hazards are now defined almost as monsters. Which is interesting but feels a bit weird.

That said I do like it and would suggest you buying it. Possibly just buy the Players Handbook it is the core book I keep referring to. The DM Guide I hardly ever touch. And the MM is well just a collection of Monster - but what they've done to the cannon fodder monsters like Kobolds and Goblins is very cool.

From my (limited) understanding 3rd edition is more or less broken. It works well for a certain bunch of levels (like 5th thru 10th) but outside of those levels the game can be not fun for a lot of people. E.g. wizards at 1st level with 3 hit points and the ability to cast a magic missile once a day.

With 4th edition they've changed that. All classes are equally viable from 1st Level to 30th Level (the new cap). There are 1st level "at will" powers/abilities that can be used every turn. Players get a decent amount of hit points at 1st level. And at high levels there isn't one class that dominates the group - all characters are equal.

Some of the atmosphere has been removed in the quest for perfect play balance. Magic items all seem very World of Warcraftesque now and very very dull. Also the whole ritual thing I mentioned previously.

But on the whole it is a very good game. And worth getting IMHO.
posted by schwa at 7:02 AM on November 3, 2008

I loathe fourth edition with a passion, for dozens of reasons. Aside from it being COMBAT COMBAT COMBAT, it no longer feels like classic Dungeons and Dragons. It feels as if someone wanted to do a little Magic: the Gathering (of your money) for abilities, liked WoW a bunch, and decided to just slap the D&D brand atop it.

posted by adipocere at 7:08 AM on November 3, 2008

3e sucked IMO, 2nd was much better. 4th shows promise, though the play style is a bit computeresque. It has introduced broad roles that character classes belong to and those roles make it a lot easier to balance parties. IE: no more being hung out to dry because you don't have a cleric or a thief.

Torrents of all the materials released so far are available which would allow you to review the game material before buying.

The new version in a few years thing will probably be delayed because of the optional subscription model introduced.
posted by Mitheral at 7:08 AM on November 3, 2008

I think the advice on finding a group first is good -- a good group of folks to play with is far more important than which edition of the rules you use (and maybe even what game you play!). But if you have fantasies of DMing, you may want to buy the books now.

I bought them because, well, I've bought all the core books since the first boxed set 30 years ago, so why stop now?

If 2nd edition is the last set of rules you were familiar with, welcome to an entirely new game called D&D. The combat system from 3E is pretty much left intact, with a few changes to simpify things. I think it works well, though you really need miniatures and a battlemat to work it out.

The character classes have been changed a lot. While this has drawn a lot of complaints, the upside is that they've made it much more accessible for new players. In general, this may be a good thing for you.

Have fun!
posted by Shoggoth at 7:10 AM on November 3, 2008

Good: all classes now have something useful to do in combat, and they've added some really good new classes as well. Creating a viable character is much easier and faster. The system is pretty streamlined, and the multiple types of attacks/defenses minimize the problem of non-warriors never being able to actually make a successful attack roll to hit with their good abilities. Healing has been massively improved, both for the clerics and for everybody else. The system for dealing with monsters' levels and abilities is good, but not flawless.

Bad: All the meat is gone from the bones, especially non-combat stuff. Skills have been practically eliminated, and flexibility within a given character class is minimal. A game my friend runs has routinely run into the problem that there's no way to determine if anybody in the party is at all competent at boat repair, sewing, or improvising a bridge. Good RPers will work around this, but it would still be nice to have some support on that end, especially for people who play less regularly and have to refamiliarize themselves with an old character. Some of this stuff may appear as supplements come out, but it's pretty disappointing to discover that, for example, the ranger no longer has squat for wilderness skills, or that you can't just buy a 10 foot pole and five guinea hens for no reason.

Overall: it's basically WoW the D&D game. Which, on its own merits, is somewhat good, somewhat bad. In the context of a decades-long history, it's bound to really irk some people, especially those who grew up with pre-3rd ed.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:41 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: As lots of people upthread have said, find a group and try a few sessions first. If you like it, you can grab the PHB or the whole set if you feel you'll ever want to take a spin in the DM's chair. If you're just a player though, everything you need is in the PHB (unlike previous editions where all the magic items were in the DMG, for instance).

I'm hugely enjoying 4E and I've been playing since early 2E. The biggest problem with 3E (and previous) is that playability varied a LOT between classes. As long as the fighter had HP, they could make 4 attacks per round, taking several real-world minutes to resolve each time. The cleric would just roll their 3d8+15 and they were done. Wizards were great ... until they ran out of spells, at which point they party was forced to "sleep" or that player had to twiddle his thumbs until they did.

In 4E, every class (and more importantly, each player) can make a roughly equal contribution each turn. Each of those turns are shorter as well. Especially for a DM, thing are much simpler to prepare and manage.

Lots of people complain that 4E is all about combat, but I don't think that's quite true. I think that 4E acknowledges that a structured ruleset is good for resolving combat but can be poor at resolving other types of tasks. Instead of attempting to do so and inevitably coming up short, they provide a lightweight mechanism for non-combat situations (skills challenges) and put control in the group's hands. Instead of finding this confining, I find it extremely freeing. Combat is clearly partitioned from the rest of the game, allowing us to play that part as we see fit.

There was a post at Gnome Stew about this just this morning actually. This was the very poignant observation the author made:

"In its attempt to simplify, simplify, simplify, 4E tossed out a lot of the rules for things like crafting, animal companions, familiars, spell research, etc… and a lot of people’s complaints (mine included) was that this narrowing of focus removed a lot of actions and playstyles from the realm of possibility. But that’s not really the case. Did I really get so forgetful of my RPG roots that I had taken the position that a lack of rules for owning a dog meant I couldn’t own one? Indeed I had."

If you find a group that keeps this in mind, I've found that you can have as much fun in 4E as you did any other edition without the extremely excessive bookkeeping other editions necessitated.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:51 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Opinions are very mixed, as you can see here. My recommendation would to be to first find a gaming group and try before you buy. Also, the Player's Handbook is sufficient for players, unlike earlier editions.
posted by demiurge at 7:59 AM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far. You guys are great.
posted by chunking express at 7:59 AM on November 3, 2008

Seconding that what you really need is a good mature playing group.

I've been a big ol' gaming nerd for the last 20 years, and I enjoy 4th edition thoroughly. There's a lot different from 2nd or 3rd, but they've done a lot of streamlining and balancing. It's really nice to be a useful cleric or wizard too. Will it feel the same as back when you played 2e? Depends on your group, but it feels good to me.

There are many aspects which make 4th less less like a medieval simulation (no more craft skills, no intricate equipment tables, and costs based on game balance) and more like a tabletop MMORPG (people buffing/debuffing, classes have team roles, endless at-will powers). Combat has an interesting chess-like tactical bent, and it goes much faster than it used to. This does not have to come at the expense of storytelling. Wizards has done all it can to encourage people to tell good stories and provide a lot of hooks.

4e has a good eye for balance and organization. You can find things easily now, book sections are well organized, and even the index actually works. This is a Big Deal. Whether you hew more to combat or storytelling, you spend less time fumbling with the rulebook and more time playing. It only takes 15 minutes to put together a character sheet now. They have also made an effort to balance everything from classes to items. The magical item tables do look rather spreadsheet-like, but things are less horribly imbalanced. It's clear they put a lot of thought into it.
posted by Mercaptan at 8:03 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: I'm actually in three games right now, 2 of which are 4e, one of which is. 3.5e.

4e plays a lot like World of Warcraft. Really. Just about everything you do is power-based. You really only make normal attacks for attacks of opportunity or if something someone else does lets you make one. On your turn, it's pretty much always using some power or other.

Furthermore, hitpoints are lot higher, and you can expect to go through them a lot faster. Remember 1st level characters having like 4, or 8 HP? Yeah, now they've got between 20 and 30. And unlike in previous editions, where getting hit once or twice was kind of a Big Deal, now it's pretty much expected. In an encounter I had last week, a 1st level fighter took about 50 points of damage and survived. Campaigns are generally designed so that every encounter has you within a few HP of dying, because your party's ability to heal is about an order of magnitude more than it was in previous versions. Really. Every character can heal themselves for about twice their total HP, if given enough time. Throw in the odd cleric or warlord (new class) and that goes even higher.

Spellcasters are very different. Rather than being able to cast fixed number of spells per day out of potentially dozens of known spells, spellcasters can now cast an almost infinite number of spells per day chosen from a mere handful. There are upsides and downsides to this. The downside is that spellcasters are now a lot more interchangeable than they used to be, and though wizards and warlocks are pretty different, one wizard is going to be more or less the same as most other wizards. The upside is that this removes a lot of the "LoTR crossed with double-entry bookkeeping" aspects of previous spellcasting classes. You pays your money, you takes your choice. In essence, spellcasters are now much more like ranged weapon specialists than uber-nerds.

But Nelsormensch's point is a good one: just because there isn't a specific rule saying that you can do x doesn't mean you can't do it. Even 3.5e didn't have a rule for everything. For instance, my DM in that game is having to figure out how to calculate damage for... umm... getting hit with a magical rowboat. Don't ask. He basically made something up that seemed to fit with the mechanic, and we're good to go. 4e can be just as versatile as previous versions, even though those things no longer have a direct bearing on combat prowess.

Additionally, unlike in previous versions where race made a difference only at character creation and in roleplaying situations, race now has an enduring effect upon game mechanics. Each race has specific feats and powers they can use.

So yeah, find a group and play a few encounters with them. See if you like it. If you don't like 4e, I'd bet that there are going to be people unloading their 3.5e stuff in a bit...
posted by valkyryn at 8:11 AM on November 3, 2008

It really depends on who you're playing with, and what you're looking for.

My group hated it; after the streamlined simplicity of Savage Worlds, it felt incredibly cumbersome.

I can see where if you had a group with very little experience with tabletop roleplaying, who were making the transition from video games, this would provide a very strict structure in which to get them acclimated.
posted by MrVisible at 8:58 AM on November 3, 2008

I like 4e. I've played 4e games that were nothing but combat combat combat, but I've also played a few where there was lots of roleplaying. I was at a weekend thing recently and heard several GMs saying that the challenge for them in 4e is handling the skill checks. Some adventures are better than others - not just the general writing, but the way the story is set up to incorporate all those skill checks.

Still, you've already gotten the best advice above: you should try it before you buy any books.
posted by tomboko at 9:27 AM on November 3, 2008

The main advantage of the OCD-oriented books was providing an estimate of some stuff that I'd never know. How much meat would a pet falcon be able to bring in? A table of probability distributions isn't necessary, but it's good for the GM to be able to eyeball it and provide the players an estimate. Similarly, how long would it take to repair a rowboat, dig a pit trap, how much money do you need to build a castle, and what's a moat cost etc etc. I've often used references for this kind of thing from other game systems, and the abundance available on the internet makes me suspect that I wouldn't buy them again.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:35 AM on November 3, 2008

A little while ago the guys at Penny Arcade tested it out and recorded the session. You can find them here (just search for the penny-arcade stuff). Whether or not you're a fan, it's really entertaining and will give a pretty good idea of what 4e is like.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 11:13 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been playing D&D on an off since the early 80s. Started with the blue box basic set (first adventure ever: Gygax's masterpiece Keep on the Borderlands) and when groups were available have ended up in games running just about every version TSR / WOTC ever printed.

4th Ed. D&D is by far the best High Fantasy RPG ever released. There are some things it does not do well: low powered gritty or realistic games for example (Middle Earth Roleplaying, a variant of Rolemaster, got that down perfect).

4th Ed is in feel more like the original or Basic versions of D&D than 3.5. In fact the Shadowfell adventure they released (which, btw, comes with intro rules so you can just spend a few bucks for that module and try out the system without shelling out for books) is almost a direct homage to Keep on the Borderlands.

As you might expect for a game that started out as a mod to a tabletop miniatures wargame (the first few printings of D&D used the combat rules from wargame Chainmail wholesale and outright required the use of miniatures) the books are focused on combat. And this it does better than 3.5 by a huge margin. Combat flows faster and the powers system means that every player, regardless of class, has at least one really cool moment per session. Everyone gets their chance to see their character shine and have a good time.

This is especially true at higher levels. Prior to 3rd edition the attitude to higher level play was generally "don't do it". The books outright told you to retire characters in the early teens in terms of level. In 3rd an attempt was made to make high level play work (not just "epic" but late teens as well) but it was pretty thoroughly broken. Anyone who has actually played in a high level 3.5 game knows what I mean. Any given combat is decided in the first round. Save or die effect everywhere. Wizards and Clerics are so much more powerful than any other class players with Fighters and the like wonder why they even show up. 4th ed actually scales well right up to the late 20s.

From a DMs point of view (that's me in my current group) the books are excellent. While it is true that the flavor text in the monster manual is much shorter the actual utility of the book in game is greatly increased. It is now extremely simple to make up monsters and encounters on the fly that are challenging without being overboard. Also to take an existing monster type and add or remove stats to put a new spin on it. With 4th ed you get more variation in encounters for less work on the part of the DM. The Dungeon Masters Guide also is much better organized (and some things that never should have been in the DMG, like wealth per level, finally got put into the Players Handbook).

Anyway, overall I think 4th ed is a great improvement if you like D&D. There are plenty of people who like RPGs but don't care for D&Ds style. You are not going to pick up these books and use the rules for a Sci-Fi space opera or a gritty Moorcock esq. fantasy (eg: Warhammer). But it really does keep the best out of the previous editions, going all the way back to the roots of D&D, and makes the classic High Fantasy RPG even better.
posted by Riemann at 11:13 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a quick note to Dr.Enormous upthread: The statement that 4th ed is "WoW the RPG" is a ridiculous strawman you see parroted about by those who either cannot or will not get into actual arguments.

Those who, as you say, "grew up with pre-3rd ed." remember that original and 1st ed D&Ds had no skill system at all. In the Oriental Adventures add-on for 1st ed (rather late in its product cycle) they first introduced the concept of "non weapon proficiencies". Basically a character could end up with one or two paltry skills that were incredibly difficult to use.

The other alternative was your characters secondary skill. A single skill you obtained by rolling on a random table. Most of which were fairly pointless and had no rules explanation for their use.

Which is the point. 4th ed takes the view that rules are to be provided for parts of the game that require rules. Combat mostly. And to get out of the way (while providing tons of ideas and background in the Dungeon Masters Guide) to let the group roleplay as they wish out of combat.
posted by Riemann at 11:21 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

One more thing about rules:

Rules exist in a table top RPG to build tension and to introduce uncertainty. The rules systems provide a framework to resolve actions in a way that combines the attributes of a character with uncertainty (in the form of die rolls).

This uncertainty is a large part of what provides dramatic tension for the players. The actual people sitting around a table with their friends. Even the referee or DM cannot predict the next roll of the die. This uncertainty is what drives the excitement and fun of that portion of the game (especially for the DM, without uncertainty his job becomes far less interesting).

But it comes at a cost. In order to be effective the rules need to provide for uncertainty without being completely random. There needs to be options but balance. A fast number of situations need to be covered but without bogging down play.

Combat is what works with a rules system. You shouldn't need dice to tell you how to roleplay your character or how to grow potatoes. Out of encounter actions should be resolved via the natural flow of dialog between the players and DM. Without having to stop and refer to whether the character has enough ranks in Knowledge: Agriculture or Profession: Basket Weaving.
posted by Riemann at 11:34 AM on November 3, 2008

You might also try out Paizo's Pathfinder (fork based off of 3.5 rules, still using open documentation licensing IIRC). It's in beta right now but pretty slick (to someone who'd never played a DnD RPG at all but was aware of various things about it, having watched games before).
posted by R343L at 11:38 AM on November 3, 2008

I specialized in Knowledge: Agriculture: Potatos. So I get a bonus to roll!!
posted by Jonsnews at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: I've been playing D&D for over 15 years, which makes me a newer player than some, but experienced enough that I think I know my way around a game table pretty well. I've played every edition, and I've played enough other systems to be able to compare and contrast D&D 4th Edition to previous editions and other games on the market.

4th Edition does what it does very, very well. The real question is whether or not what it does is what you want from a roleplaying game.

I will admit that when I read 4th Edition for the first time, it felt like an MMORPG to me. It doesn't read like a high fantasy roleplaying game; it just plays like one. I fault roughly 50% of the complaints about 4th Edition to the way the books lay out the rules without doing much to bring you into the game world (I fault the other 50% of complaints to my experience with gamers being nerds who are easily ruffled by changes to their pet obsessions).

The skills have been streamlined (why anyone ever thought that Hide and Move Silently should be bought separately is beyond me), and skill encounters are now extended affairs, so one bad roll isn't going to definitely tank your effort. Combat encounters do seem more prominent, but each combat is now more of a puzzle than round after round of rolling dice back and forth until someone runs out of hit points. The number of abilities that can be used to more both your allies and enemies around in the combat environment is probably the most enjoyable change in the game for me.

In my opinion, 4th Edition is a well-constructed combat system with a thin veneer of roleplaying game applied on top of it. Having said that, the system doesn't get in the way of roleplaying the way that I felt it did in some previous editions. My group is extremely roleplay-heavy, and we're having a blast, and the DM is finding that he's getting as much enthusiasm from the group as ever, with about half the work that 3rd Edition required of him.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2008

Forgive me for speaking without reading the whole comment trail first. (Important caveat: I liked each successive iteration of D&D better than the previous, though I'm not 100% on board with 4th ed. just yet.

As a rebuttal to many criticisms I've heard: For years, we all bitched irritably about how much space gaming books wasted on flavor text and "how to run an RPG" advice. The vast majority of gamers already knew how to do this, and those who did not would certainly have benefitted from more condensed advice. 4th Ed. realized its main audience knew all this stuff already, and so ditched it. 4th Ed. generally assumes that the players already know their setting and style... and thus devotes more space to combat & rules.

So naturally, all us gamers are bitching irritably about it.

The upswing of 4th Ed. is that rather than having the same 1d20+x attack that does 1dx+x damage + [mechanically meaningless narration to taste]... you actually have a few different moves with genuinely different effects. "Hack & slash" really was just "hack, hack, hack" before. Now you have a hack, a slash, a parry, a riposte, etc. And yet it doesn't get bogged down.

Downswing: Didn't care for the art/imagery. As stated, it's less D&D and more Magic or WoW. And the game really isn't going to balance well if you want a low-magic game. High sorcery works fine; Conan or Lords of the Ring (where magic is mostly the purview of the bad guys) not so much.

Oh, and for new players, there are much better descriptions of equipment. I started playing in 2nd grade and I couldn't make heads or tails of some of the things on the gear lists...

To echo others here? Try to sit in on a local group or even go to a con for a day.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:14 PM on November 3, 2008

eh, honestly, I feel like 4e is simplified. Now some nerds (OrangeDrink says affectionately) really like playing DnD because they can argue all the rules. The mechanics are more interesting to them than the roleplaying. 4e doesn't cater to this well.

That said, it's pretty easy to bring new people in. If you're set with hardcore gamers, I think you're sitting pretty. If you want to fly by the seat of your pants and tell everyone than they will NEVER have to forage and that sure you can use a Nature check to drive a boat, than 4e might suit your needs more.
posted by OrangeDrink at 1:45 PM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. I've marked some arbitrary set 'best answers' based mostly on whether people sounded like they were in a similar boat to myself (played 2nd ed) or if they had played 4th ed recently.

I love you all equally though.
posted by chunking express at 11:53 AM on November 10, 2008

Response by poster: I grabbed the players handbook. My friend bought the box set. I'll post here if 4th edition is awesome or not. (Reading the players handbook, I can see where all the comparisons to WOW come from. The whole idea of defenders, strikers, etc, never really came up at all in 2nd edition.)
posted by chunking express at 7:45 PM on November 2, 2009

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