RPG a Day – Day 18: Favourite Game System

Day 18 of #RPGaDAY.

Favourite Game System.

My initial answer was going to be Cortex Plus in its various forms, but honestly I’m going to be (spoilers) talking about that enough later on in the month. And, in retrospect, while it’s a system I love, it doesn’t have quite the same impact on me as the complex, well-oiled machinery that makes up the inner workings of the system I’m going to talk about today.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is a system I adore. It defines what it expects D&D to be (an action RPG, more on that later) and delivers wholeheartedly on that premise. Its core mechanics, class design, encounter based focus and more really made it deliver on everything I wanted D&D to be, without feeling (overly) restrained by the game’s history and sacred cows.

Released in June 2008, there had been almost a year of hype leading up to the launch of 4th Ed, and after several months of struggling with 3.5 at higher levels I was very much ready for something new. An online friend of mine sent me a preview PDF of the core books about a month before their official release, and I read through them rapidly over the course of the next few hours, marvelling at just how new the whole system seemed. Which, given it’s still a D20 game at its heart, was pretty remarkable. In short order my existing D&D campaign was converted over, and the UEA GamesSoc’s demo D&D games for new members were massively oversubscribed each year.

So, what’s so good about 4th Edition? As I’ve said above, it understands that D&D is an action RPG – that is to say, the main game experience is about combat, action and high-energy high-impact encounters first and foremost – and focuses itself around that. Fights are fun, tactical and cinematic experiences and every character has something substantial to contribute to every encounter.  Someone put it well when they said “4th Ed is playing the Lord of the Rings films rather than the books.”  You’re going to be fighting dozens of orcs at once, or sliding down stairs on a shield while shooting your foes, or being thrown across chasms to face down the vanguard of an army.  PCs are competent and durable from the word go, and should face challenges appropriate to that.

Fights on top of a moving train while you’re attacked by pterodactyls? That’s precisely the kind of thing that 4th Ed does well.

That isn’t to say that the game is only about combat.  It’s got as much social roleplaying, puzzle solving and investigative potential as any other version of D&D, and in fact explicitly supports non-combat encounters in both direct mechanics and XP rewards with a streamlined set of skills and the Skill Challenge system.  I’ve found Skill Challenges to be a very flexible mechanic, easily adapting to cross-country exploration in dangerous terrain, tense diplomatic situations, or even massed battles – essentially any situation where there’s something meaningful at stake for both success and failure.

The class design and balance is fantastic.  While every class follows the broadly similar pattern of At Will, Encounter, Daily and Utility powers at various levels, what those powers represent and can do is heavily tailored to the flavour of each class and their role.  Importantly, it gives Fighters and other martial types an exciting range of tactical options, and puts them on a mechanically balanced playing field with the other PCs.  This is really important, as at no point should anyone feel like they’re being mechanically outshone by other members of the party, and I’m hugely pro everyone feeling like they’re a useful member of the group.

4th Ed’s mechanics also really encourage teamwork, with a party working together being notably more than the sum of its parts.  This brings the mechanical focus onto the PCs as a group rather than any one individual, and actively encourages people to share the spotlight around.

And looking at it from a DM’s perspective, it’s a breeze to prepare for.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual lay out the underlying mathematics of the game really clearly which makes building balanced encounters and new monsters very easy, and levelling up monsters or “re-skinning” them into something else with a few quick changes is exceedingly simple.  The focus on the encounter as the default block of time (and the PCs having a lot of per encounter resources) means that you can make each individual encounter an interesting and engaging set-piece rather than having to try and gradually wear them down.

Also, if you read one 4th Ed book, read the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2.  It’s the single best book of DMing/GMing advice I’ve read for any system, and I’m wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in running an RPG.  Heck, it’s probably worthy of a post in its own right, something I’ll consider once #RPGaDAY has finished.

So, there’s a lot that 4th Edition does well.  Where does it stumble?

– Daily Powers.  These feel really at odds with encounter-based structure of the game, and are a weird introduction of a real-world time into the abstract timing system of encounters and short rests.  I would have been much happier if they had been tied into Milestones instead, and I’m likely to house rule them in that direction the next time I run 4th Ed.

– Essentials.  While the Essentials books are really quite good, there’s a jarring change in design philosophy between “core” 4th Ed and Essentials.  Released as both an introductory product and an attempt to appeal to older-school players or Pathfinder fans, I think the Essentials line could have done with tying into the core 4th Ed line a little more closely.

– Early monster stats.  While the mechanical balance of the game is very solid for the most part, the initial monsters were a little underpowered and in a few places rather dull to fight.  This was quickly corrected, and it’s not hard to tweak the stats to improve things, but it would have been nice to see this done right straight out of the gate.

There you have it.  4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, my favourite game system and one that met its end rather earlier than I would have liked.  5th Edition/D&D Next is a very different game, but that’s another topic entirely…


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