Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed.

People dislike change. It is as much a universal constant as change itself. Wherever things are in flux there are people that disagree with it and file petitions against it.

So it is shocking when a well loved IP comes out with a new version and there is not an outcry against it. Take the most recent iteration of the Dungeon and Dragons ruleset. Some would argue that the new direction is a "step backward", drawing the focus back from the roleplaying aspect and concentrating on the combat, but many others would counter that the new edition is easier to step into and easier to understand than previous versions (I'm looking at you thac0). "Easier" is not often a word that is welcomed by fans, usually supplanted by "dumbing-down" and followed by "for the console kiddies", but here it is hard to argue against. The younger generations have grown up with videogames, sitting around a tabletop "imagining" must seem like a waste of time when someone else has already done the work for them elsewhere. Dungeons and Dragons is operating in a difficult space and needs to work against that, and 4th Edition is an adept move in that direction. The online implementation could potentially allow for more flexible matchmaking and meeting as well as a competitive visual element to the playing field, the ruleset allows even first level characters to jump in and feel like heroes, the character classes are similar enough to be understandable while still fitting nicely into different combat roles. It is as easy to jump into as WoW.

Some would argue against that direction, but most understand the place Dungeons and Dragons occupies in the tabletop roleplaying landscape. It is a vanguard for all other tabletop games: almost everyone who plays got their start in Dungeons and Dragons. From there they branch out to White Wolf or Seventh Sea, the more complex systems focused on roleplaying over combat. Dungeons and Dragons is an entry point, and that is why it is so important that it is marketable to the mainstream. That is not to say that those who roleplay move past DnD and on to richer worlds. There is something very refreshing about jumping into a 4th edition game. With the simple combat and tactics of the miniatures it is easy to understand and fun. It is classic hack and slash dungeon crawling, which DnD has always done best, now they've just focused more upon it. There are other games that do the roleplaying better, there are other games that do intrigue and politics and suspense and horror better. Dungeons and Dragons has always been about dungeoneering, and this version does that quite well.

Update: In Episode 92 of the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call they discuss the relationship between the pen/paper and video game spaces. It's definitely worth a listen. One interesting point that Michael Zenke makes is that the simplicity of the combat ruleset allows the players and the DM to focus more thought on the other aspects of the game, i.e. roleplaying. It is a curious concept, considering that games with much more complex rules for combat (I'm looking at you Seventh Sea) do non-combat interactions so well, in part because there is a well-designed and dedicated ruleset for those interactions.

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