D&D 4th Edition Demos

Check out this link.

So, yeah, I’m going to be doing D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games and Hobbies over the next three Saturdays. For the first two, I’m going to be running excerpts from Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4th Edition adventure, which goes on sale Tuesday, May 20. The adventure comes with a quick-start rulebook and pregenerated characters, which is what I’m going to be using. Two demos a day, as long as I get players; first one starts at 1:00 pm, second one starts around 5:00 pm. On Worldwide D&D Day, Saturday, June 7, I’ll be at the store all day, running demos out of whatever launch package they send Pedro. If you’re in Winnipeg, and you’re interested in giving the game a try, come on down and play with me.

Okay, the plug’s done. Now I want to talk about what I know about 4E, and what I think about it.

First off, I want to stress that all the information I have is coming from that immense mixed blessing, The Internet. When I was down at Imagine today, I got to look at the sealed Keep on the Shadowfell, but that’s it. It’s not on sale until Tuesday, and I have no special access.

But there’s been a lot of stuff written about the new game coming, and I’ve been doing my level best to read it all. Sites that have been really valuable for insight:

  • Wizards of the Coast has been posting regular updates and teasers and art previews for some time now.
  • ENWorld, which was born in the rumblings before 3E, has once again become the place to check for news on the newest edition of D&D.
  • The Chatty DM, who stops by this site every now and then, has posted an extensive review of Keep on the Shadowfell.
  • Some months back, Ain’t It Cool News posted a three-part review from one of the playtesters, but I can’t seem to find it now.


The point I’m making is that I really don’t know any more than anyone else about the game, and less than many. So why am I talking about it?

Because my hopes are high. And they’re high for specific reasons.

Unfortunately, I also have some serious reservations. And again, they’re very specific.

Let’s talk about why I’m pumped, first, then we’ll talk about why I’m worried.

The changes I’ve been reading about in the stuff that’s been posted online has shown me that the new game seems to be hewing close to one of my personal design goals when I build games – just enough complexity to make the game fun, and no more. For every new system I add to a game, for every time I come up with an idea that means a die roll, I try to ask myself, “Does this add to the fun?” If the answer is no or, worse still, that it detracts from the fun, I toss the system and start again.

It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and now that I have, I cling to it with both hands and all of my heart. Make sure that every time a player picks up a die, it’s adding to the fun. Make sure that players are excited to roll a die, not just going through the motions.

You can’t always achieve that, of course. The world’s not perfect. You need some complexity to make the game able to simulate what you want it simulating. But the complexity should serve the game, not the simulation.

And this seems to be the view taken by the designers and developers of 4E. In a lot of the interviews, they talk about how the game moves faster, especially in combat, while the characters all have interesting choices to make every turn. Some of the pregenerated characters and monsters have been posted on the Wizards site, and it looks like they’ve been paring away excessive complexity to focus on the fun stuff. That’s my kind of design.

They also talk a lot about how much easier it is for DMs to design and run adventures. Now, I generally spend about 30 minutes prep time for every hour of play in campaigns I run. One of the designers talked in an interview about how he never spends more than 30-40 minutes putting together a full evening of gaming. They say it’s much easier to build encounters, to adjust monster stats, to set up skill challenges, to create treasure, all the mechanical stuff. That leaves more time to building story, description, NPC quirks, building props and hand-outs, and all the other fun stuff.

The designers also say that it’s far easier to run the game. Looking at the monster stat blocks that have hit the Web, I’m starting to believe it. The one that really swayed me was the Pit Fiend stat block they posted. Instead of a laundry-list of special abilities, most of which never get used in combat, there are a set of powers that look like they work well together and a set of tactics to show you how to use them.

I just finished running a high-level D&D 3.5 campaign. This is so much nicer than the high-level threats I had to keep track of there, without losing flavour.

I mentioned skill challenges a couple paragraphs back. The new game integrates a system for handling non-combat challenges that rely on the characters’ skills, but don’t come down to single die rolls or rely on only one skill. They talk about it here, and it sounds pretty good to me.

They’ve also done a lot to try and address that age-old bane of verisimilitude, the 20-minute adventuring day. You know: the party gets up, heads out, gets into two fights, and has to rest for another eight hours to heal and regain spells. Well, they’re doing a number of things to deal with that, and I hope it solves the problem.

So, that’s what’s got me hoping.

Now, here’s what’s got me scared.

First, Wizards has obviously taken a long, hard look at the MMORPG phenomenon, and wants to grab a chunk of that market to play 4E. They’re emphasizing party roles, handing out more video-game-style powers, reworking some sacred cows like random hit points, and so on.

There’s a reason I don’t play MMORPGs. Actually, there are several, but stay with me.

I like the way D&D has traditionally done some things, and I don’t like the way a lot of MMORPGs seem to do things. I don’t want to play a table-top version of World of Warcraft.

Let’s talk roles, first of all. D&D has always been a class-based system, so roles have been an intrinsic part of it since the beginning. What I’m worried about now is the emphasis on the roles, and whether that leaves room for a graceful, elegant fighter or a wizard who likes to mix it up with a sword. I want it to, but I’m not sure it does.

As for the powers, a lot of it is going to depend on the jazz that goes with it. We’ve seen powers where a Paladin hits a foe and heals an enemy – how is that explained? What’s the logic behind it? Can you justify it in the game world without resorting to MMORPG terms? I hope so.

Y’know, really what it comes down to is that I really want to like this game, but there have been some big promises made and I don’t know if it will live up to them. I like the things they say they’re changing, but will I like the way they change them? When Mongoose released the new RuneQuest, I was so pumped. I figured that if they could deliver on even half the things they were promising, they’d be golden.

I don’t even want to get into how disappointed I was with the game once we playtested it.

I just really don’t want that to happen again. I’m leery of getting my hopes up to high.

But I can’t help it. I’m just really looking forward to the release, to trying it out, and to playing it regularly. After all, I was a real nay-sayer when they announced 3E, but it won me over big-time. They did it once; I’m sure they can do it again.


Anyway, to get back to the point, demos at Imagine for the next three Saturdays. Come down and try the game out with me. It’ll be fun.

In the meantime, I’ve got this idea for a 4E campaign – The Phoenix Covenant. Maybe I’ll talk a little about it next time.

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4 Responses to D&D 4th Edition Demos

  1. Link to a guy’s blog and he’ll come running to see what it’s about.

    I too have reservations, although to a much lesser level, which makes me one of the “4e enthusiasts” on the web right now.

    You are entirely right that all stats from level 1 to 19 (i.e the ones I’ve seen) all fit on a playing card now (no more 4 pager stats, THANK YOU!)… and that alone makes me hope!

  2. Graham says:

    Winnipeg, eh?

    Well, I would come down, but I will be running games at GameKnight, in St Vital, all day on June 7th, myself. I’m not a game author, but I am an enthusiastic DM. 😀

    I used to be a huge Campaign Outfitters customer, but the new location… well, it’s not the most convenient, especially if you live in the south end. But we’ve got 3 good gaming stores here in Winnipeg, in the north, central, and south, so we’re all covered well, I think.

    Myself, I have fewer reservations that you. From what I’ve read of the multiclassing system, the “Wizard who likes to mix it up with a sword” and “graceful, elegant fighter” should not be a problem. (Though the graceful, light-armoured fighter will likely, as in 3e, be better represented by the Rogue or Ranger.)

    The Paladin who hits a foe and heal an ally? A Paladin or Cleric should be constantly mumbling prayers for their allies. Many of the powers don’t key off a hit, either, but will heal the ally even if you miss.

    Anyways, I may hit you up in the next couple weekends. The demos could be real fun. But you won’t be seeing me on the 7th.

  3. Rechan says:

    First, I’d like to say beware judging it by the adventure demo. It’s not the full product. There’s some mistakes in the module, everyone has but a few powers at first level, and it is after all a pre-made adventure. So it may not be fantastic. So take the session with a grain of salt. 🙂

    [i]As for the powers, a lot of it is going to depend on the jazz that goes with it. We’ve seen powers where a Paladin hits a foe and heals an enemy – how is that explained? What’s the logic behind it? Can you justify it in the game world without resorting to MMORPG terms? I hope so.[/i]

    The first thing you have to accept is that hit points are not “How much of your body can be hacked apart”. They are your will, your luck, your courage, your endurance, your nerves, and yes, your body. A good example of a high-ish level character low in hit points is the end of Die Hard, where John McClain is staggering, bloody, bruised, and he’s just had it. Harry Dresden when he’s all bruised and sore, is low on hit points. Being low on hit points is similar to the DFRPG where everyone is confused, shamed and rattled.

    So HEALING isn’t just “My body knits itself back together”, but it’s you getting some of the fight back in you. It’s Rocky getting up off the mat, wiping his mouth off, and continuing to fight. It’s being inspired to push on just a little bit further.

    So the paladin hitting someone and healing someone else is you being inspired by the paladin’s amazing hit. Or, he is casting a spell, but because he is a Soldier of his God, a necessary component for that spell is violence. Or, if you want to think of it in purely physical, raw damage, the paladin is taking the damage he does to this guy, and giving it TO YOU in the form of healing. Sort’ve a health swap.

  4. Rick Neal says:

    In general, I’m positive about the coming game. I’ve read the explanations online and some of the cautions, and I know that the intro stuff is not a substitute for the full game. I just haven’t talked directly to someone who’s actually PLAYED it yet. And even if I did, I’m not going to be totally sold until I see the game for myself. I’m picking on the Paladin power, because it looks too much like a “health swap” to me, and I don’t like that idea. I can make up all the explanations and justifications I like in my head, but I want to see what the BOOKS say about it. I mean, Kevin J. Anderson managed to explain why talking about making the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs meant the Millennium Falcon was fast, but it was a crap explanation and did nothing in my mind but underline the initial mistake in Star Wars.*

    Having said that, I’m optimistic. Wizards didn’t let me down with 3rd Edition, and the main thing I didn’t like about 3.5 was the timing of the release. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on 4E – I’ve pre-ordered my books, I’m running demos, and I’m roughing out a new campaign.

    But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. I’ll be eating mine on June 6th.

    *Do I get extra geek points for this reference? Or do I lose points for revealing that I’ve read a Kevin J. Anderson book?

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