Sunday 29 November 2020

How 4e brought D&D (mostly) back to its roots


"It's a great tactical miniatures game, but it's not D&D" is the refrain we've all heard time and again about 4th edition. They're not wrong about the first part - it's a fantastic minis game. I don't agree with the second sentiment. 

I'm not going to say that 4e is basically OD&D because that would be a lie, but for me the maligned edition is closer to the philosophy of the older games despite the wholesale ground-up changes the designers made.

The Nentir Vale, what was the Points of Light world at inception, is hands down my favourite setting because it fits with that original sandbox intent Gygax, Arneson and co had in mind. The Vale is a frontier locale, where empires have risen and fallen leaving solitary city-states and towns dotted around a dangerous wilderness. The setting offers referees a canvas to fill in, making it a much more collaborative affair than, say, the Forgotten Realms. There's a real sense of danger and wonder in the Vale. 

I also believe the grid combat is very much in-keeping with those OD&D Chainmail days. The roots of the hobby came from wargaming and to wargaming they return. Ok, I'll absolutely concede that as the game grew over the late 70s and early 80s imaginatory play was more the design intent, but at its core D&D was about miniatures and fighting. 

Alignment in 4e feels more like the original law, neutral and chaos of old. This came as the game completely upended the Great Wheel cosmology in favour of the World Axis, which presented anymore organic view of the planes and their interactions. As a result, 4e uses lawful good, good, unaligned, chaotic evil and evil. Like classic D&D these roles as much broader and less stringent than the usual 9 alignments. 

Alignments aside, there's something core to 4e that feels very much traditional - putting the fun first. The designers flat out encourage you to reskin monsters, and swapping out powers is super simple. The game is so tight that you can chop and change magical items to create your own pretty much on the fly. 

Look, I'm under no illusion that 4e isn't an old school game. There's so much there to separate it from, say, BX, but in reality it's closer to that than its detractors realise. I love 4e, so much that I've been running a campaign for over a year. I also adore older editions (not so much AD&D). I have to admit that 5e still kind of leaves me cold, maybe because during the playtest it was meant to be a very modular game that could run in and old school way, but what we ended up with was more of a streamlined AD&D. Setting it in the Forgotten Realms by default makes everything high fantasy, rather than the pulp fantasy D&D came from. Even 4e, despite it being high powered, has a wild and dangerous setting where the PCs are the exceptional beings and the wilderness is dotted with unexplored dungeons. If exploration is one of the core tenets of 5e, why is it set in a place that has been fully mapped and filled out with decades of history? 

Anyway, if you want to play a game that has barely changed since the 70s, play Tunnels and Trolls. It's superior to D&D anyway

Art: Jeff Easley

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