Dungeons & Dragons v4.0

By Scott Parrino 12 Aug 2008 0

Some Background

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) version 4 has only recently been released but it took a couple of months for me to hook up with my gaming group to play it for the first time.  I have only played one game, but that was over the course of several hours.  Any gaming system as large and complex as D&D cannot be adequately reviewed after so short a period of time, so this is more of an impressions piece.  As many readers may know, the D&D franchise is owned by the megacorporation Hasbro (via its subsidiary, Wizards of the Coast).  Corporations don?t succeed by being charities ? they make money.  Many of my veteran gaming friends have remarked to me that the ?upgrade? to D&D 4.0 is less of an improvement to the game than a cynical way to make money.  The background to this is a feeling among some gamers that Hasbro has so far been unable to capitalize on the massively lucrative MMORPG market.  Yes, there is an MMO out there based on the D&D world, but Hasbro isn?t boasting about their subscriber base like the World of Warcraft folks are ? latest news I could find are 10 million subscriptions.  So color me cynical if I don?t dismiss the theory that D&D 4 is play to capture some of that $15/subscriber/month revenue stream that is being enjoyed by the myriad MMORPGs out there.

That isn?t to say, however, that if I worked at Hasbro I wouldn?t be miffed.  D&D invented the RPG genre.  It was created by Gary Gygax and Richard Arneson of TSR (since purchased by Hasbro), who previously had been refining their rules on historical medieval miniatures combat, and was born in one of those ?one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind? moments when Gary and Richard decided they wanted to work on some rules for 1 on 1 knight combat, rather than army versus army.  Toss in some JRR Tolkien as inspiration, and presto!   D&D was born.  So, I can?t really blame a bunch of Hasbro execs for sitting around in their corporate offices wondering why Hasbro?s share of this massive MMORPG market isn?t larger.

Equally, if not more important, D&D is no longer the only tabletop RPG available.  Venerable and popular though it is, it has competitors and some of them have amazing followings.  Readers should also keep in mind that the D&D v3.5 system isn?t perfect.  It has literally dozens of exapansions and rules that have been criticized as being overly restrictive at the cost of storytelling elements ? perhaps the strongest element of earlier versions of D&D.  All of this is simply to say that while money may be a motivating factor, there have been real gameplay issues that suggest a new version of D&D is warranted. 

Now that that?s out of the way, I?ll offer?some more background. 

Some (More) Background

Many gamers who play both tabletop and online RPGs will tell you that they really aren?t the same game.  MMORPGs are called ?role-playing games? but, as one critic on our staff once remarked, they?re really more like glorified chat rooms.  That has largely been my experience, too.  Despite attempts by developers to create online games that have more complex gameplay, large amounts of the game are usually spent conversing with other players.  Time after time I have been in parties where the action consists of the fighters whacking away at some monster, the spell casters waiting for their magic to recharge, and the entire time the party is engaged in a text or voice chat about something completely different than the immediate problem at hand.  That?s not the case for every MMORPG, but it can be applied to many of them.

Contrast that against the tabletop RPG like D&D.  Here sidebar conversations do happen.  But most of the time the party is either riveted to their seats waiting to see if the fighter connected and how much damage he did, or they are researching their obscure abilities to determine their next move and discussing how it might be applied to the situation at hand.  While conversation may drift to the latest movie, it?s often within the context of how an orc?s head was just severed and how it might have resembled that portrayed in (fill in the blank).

That isn?t to say that MMORPGs aren?t fun.  They are.  They have also made significant contributions to gaming, brining in new blood to a genre that might have otherwise eschewed the RPG genre.   One of the things that has come out of MMORPGs is the classification of roles.  If D&D created the class of the fighter, wizard, cleric and paladin, MMORPGs examined these classes and grouped them into simpler concepts: the tank, the healer, the puller.  Several classes might fall within a group, but their overall contribution to a group is similar.

So it was with interest that as I flipped through the first few pages of the Players Handbook for D&D 4 I noted that on page 15 there was a discussion of the role a character can play in a group.  My first impression, based solely on reading just a few pages of the introduction, that D&D 4 may have been constructed to be accessible from the viewpoint of an online RPG player.  It is through that lens that I will be examining the game as I prepare to play it and then?actually play it. 

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