Old Dog, New Tricks: Dungeons & Dragons

I spent my last blog on an old man rant about the 3-D phenomenon in movies, and how it’s been around in one form or another since before I was born but still sucks.

Now I’ll move on to a rant about something else that’s been around awhile in one form or another, but with an important difference: it got better. I am speaking of that most hallowed of nerd pastimes, Dungeons & Dragons.

There are those nerds of my generation who do not appreciate Dungeons & Dragons 4.0, the latest iteration of the D&D RPG (role-playing game, for those of you out there who frittered away your youthful years on silly things like sports and sex), but after hearing their arguments I can’t much agree. I will not fault anyone who prefers to continue to play under the old rulesets, but I do find the attitude akin to insisting on writing your term paper on a typewriter rather than a computer. Also, instead of a term paper, apply this to something supposed to be a hobby you do for fun.

D&D 4.0 debuted almost two years ago, so you might wonder why I would bring this up now. Well, not too long ago I was sent a video by a well-meaning friend, since he’s occasionally heard my vitriol regarding the shortcomings of the previous D&D systems. The video dates from about two months before 4.0 came out, and is supposed to be a review helping new players sort through the spell options available to a beginning mage.

Now, I’m not sure if this video is actually helpful to a new player. It’s woefully incomplete. I’m not even sure this guy had moved beyond 2nd Edition, since there’s no mention of 3rd edition options like Sorcerors. But in any case, it’s obsolete, and thank goodness for that, because here’s the real secret. The grades don’t matter.

In older editions of D&D, every 1st level spell sucked, because being a mage at 1st level sucked.

In fact, being a 1st level of just about any class sucked. Everyone was fragile, even the big burly warriors were usually one unlucky hit away from bleeding out on the ground. A 1st level mage certainly had no business at the frontlines. Then on top of that, the video is accurate in that they only got to cast one spell “per day”, basically meaning after you shot your mystical wad, you had to find somewhere nice and quiet to get eight hours of undisturbed rest before you could do it again.

If your Dungeon Master was nice, they would allow for the wholly ludicrous proposition of doing this in the midst of your dangerous expedition into the Caves of Chaos, or Dungeon of Dread, or Annex of Antisocialness. The Dark Lord and his minions of evil were apparently just fine with you and your friends having a time out after you slaughtered the gate guards. Oh yeah, and another time out after rampaging through the courtyard. And maybe a third before the throne room. Eight hours. Think about this.

Go team!

But going with the more “realistic” option was even more terrible. Okay, you’ve cast your Sleep spell and put the gate guards to sleep. Go you. Now there’s no opportunity for rest, so for the rest of the night’s game, you get to stand in the back and cheer on the fighters and rangers and such, since they aren’t limited to a single sword swing or bow shot per day. If you get up there and try to fight, you’ll die, and your ranged weapon options and accuracy are slim to non-existent (this improved in Third Edition, but not by a whole lot). So really, every first level wizard should have come equipped with a set of pom-poms, so they had something to do. Talk about a support class, eh?

Now all this was supposedly balanced by the fact that, once they reached about 5th level and beyond, magic-using characters became very powerful. I’m not going to deny that, nor would any other veteran of D&D who ever watched a Fireball spell in action (and prayed their own character was outside of its blast radius).  It was even common to hear vets make declarations like “the game truly begins at 5th level”. Or you’d have DMs that took this quite literally and had you create 5th (or at least 3rd) level characters for the very beginning of their campaign.

Delving the Toilets of Torment

If you’re sensing a design flaw here, you’re correct. It was another one of the many Elephants in the Room that D&D players tried their best to ignore and suffer their way through. Don’t worry, little heroes! Work hard! It’ll get better! Yes, for some unfathomable reason, a heroic fantasy role-playing game decided to mimic the wonderful experience of being an overwrought job intern. And for decades, we who played the game accepted it.

Oh, I could go through a whole shopping list of other D&D craziness that’s gradually been weeded out over the years. Character class: Dwarf. Percentile strength scores. THAC0. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, count yourself lucky. If you do… do any of you really look back on these concepts with rosy, unironic nostalgia? And yet, at the time we put up with it, and perhaps even considered it normal and correct.

Now those three examples in the paragraph above were fixed prior to 4.0, but it wasn’t until 4.0 that the designers of D&D finally had the courage to take some truly revolutionary steps that fixed the biggest, most ingrained issues. As one example, the new edition frontloads your health (or “hit points”, as they’re still called) so you can actually take it on the chin a few times without taking a dirtnap.

But the biggest overhaul was in how spells now work. Every class in 4.0 now has powers that work on a daily, encounter, or at-will basis. Daily powers work the way magic used to… you get to fire them off once a day, then you need a good long rest before doing it again; however, daily powers are on the level of an old-school Fireball… they’re impressive. Possibly able to end a fight or completely change its nature, all on their own. Encounter powers can be used once per “encounter”, usually considered as a single battle, and can be used again after a short rest of about five minutes. At-will powers are your bread and butter abilities that can be used, you guessed it, at will: every time your turn comes around, your character can do it.

Now every class gets this set-up, not just spellcasters, but it’s the spellcasters that got the biggest benefit. Remember the guy in the video above complaining about the uselessness of magic missile? Oh, you didn’t watch that? Um, well, anyhow… basically you now get to cast it every round. Huge difference. 1st-level casters finally got to retire their pom-poms and get to blasting fools like they signed up for. Plus, they have some encounter and daily level spells to rotate into the mix and really rock the house. When you’re dealing with heroic fantasy, this is a good thing.

Now, the two main complaints I hear about the new edition are that 1) It’s too simplified and cookie cutter, and 2) It’s too much like an MMORPG (that would stand for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, of which World of Warcraft is the most well-known example).

After having played several games of 4.0, I will admit that the choices available during character creation and early leveling are much more limited, but is that really a bad thing? D&D is more accessible to new players, even players that have never played a role-playing game, than ever before. For all that Dungeons & Dragons is the RPG that the non-nerd population of the world knew about (even if they thought it was a tool of Satan), it was very, pardon the pun, arcane. And explaining certain of the sillier aspects of it to new people was akin to being part of a remote tribe trying to explain to the anthropologist that, yes, we smash every young boy’s penis between these rocks at puberty because it’s the way they become men. It’s not just because we didn’t bathe, it was because they were quite justified in looking at us askance and asking, “You do this for fun?”.

The Lord of the Rings movies made a lot of goddamn money, people. More than all the basement dwellers in the world could possibly account for. The audience for orc-fighting is out there… and I’ve seen the difference, then and now, as new people join the D&D group and want to be Legolas. Before, lots of crazy rules, tons of hurry up and wait in the middle of dungeons, and you could be dropped in your tracks by a lone, lucky goblin. Now, bam! Here’s your Ranger, here’s your awesome longbow powers, shoot some bad guys in their pupils. They are incredibly happy that they are able to shoot bad guys in their pupils at first level. They are having fun, and it starts to make sense why you’d spend time at this instead of going out and drinking at a bar. This is a game, and I am having fun! I think I will come back next week.

Go ahead, complain about lowering the bar, or scoff at people who have no character concept beyond wanting to be Legolas. Let He Who Hath Never Created A Conan Clone Cast The First Stone. Dungeons & Dragons has finally become a game where veterans who remember when having a negative armor class was a good thing, and complete newbies who have to be reminded which one of the dice is the D8, can all sit around the table and have a really good fucking time living out those fantasy movies and stories we enjoy so much. That’s amazing.

As for the second complaint that it makes D&D too much like things such as Everquest and World of Warcraft, let’s put it this way. In those games, an inordinate amount of time is spent balancing the races, classes, and options available so that everyone has their own niche and can feel special in their own way. These games all ripped off D&D in the first place, but they quickly realized that “one spell per day” was a ridiculous concept in a real-time environment. The only shame is that it took so long for D&D to admit that it was a ridiculous concept in a non real-time environment, as well.

D&D 4.0 has even gone a step beyond MMOs in finally, finally getting rid of the mandatory need for a dedicated healer in the party. Oh, it still helps to have a Cleric along, don’t get me wrong, but if there was one class that arguably sucked even more to play at 1st level than a mage, it was a Cleric. You got to stand back with your healing spell and wait for someone to get hurt. Whee. In 4.0, Clerics, like Wizards, can now smite with holy fire from a distance or wade in smacking away with the chosen weapons of their deity (healing themselves and their allies at the same time)… or, if no one wants to play a Cleric, they don’t have to. There are other classes that have healing abilities, like the Warlord, or every character also has the ability to take a deep breath once per fight and heal their own goddamn selves with a Second Wind. My current party has no Cleric. And we do just dandy.

So finally, D&D has become a game where your character is easy to create, can feel heroic right out of the starting gate, and your epic fight through the evil wizard’s tower does not require several rest stops. No one feels obligated to play a certain class, and it’s possible to do some really cooperative tactics with everyone’s various powers that just blow previous editions out of the water.

As always, of course, they’re doing their level best to fuck it all up and make it complicated again through a bunch of expansions and supplements, but at its core, I believe D&D 4.0 comes the closest of all its evolutionary line to bringing to life the experience of playing heroic fantasy. It’s an old dog that woke up and learned some new tricks, and it took long enough to do it. So throw it a well-deserved bone.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
This entry was posted in Level Up, Nerd Alert and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Old Dog, New Tricks: Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Justin says:

    The other side to the “mages suck at low levels” is that fighters suck at high levels. I was in a reasonably high level game in college (meaning we made it to around 11-13th levels), and the fighter was struggling for things to do. While I would go through my spell list deciding how I would change the fight, he had the same declaration every round: “I swing my sword.” In 4th edition, that’s no longer the case.

  2. Clint says:

    Of course, at first level it would also have been “I swing my sword”, it just seems comparatively useful because he could at least do something every round. Now everyone’s got options and cool shit to do. And personally, I love the fact they took another page from the MMOs and made it so the Fighters can actually “tank” and protect the squishier sorts. You park a 4.0 Fighter in a corridor and he can hold that line against a whole tide of foes, which is pretty damn awesome to see happen.

  3. bluedrew says:

    Man, now I want to play this.

  4. Pingback: The RPG Experience, and Why System Matters « The Satellite Show

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