Last weekend I demoed D&D 4E (note that the rulebook itself doesn’t actually use this phrasing; it just calls itself Dungeons & Dragons) with Kevin, Ben and a couple pickup players at our semi-local game store (it’s 30 miles down the highway).
Lately I’ve been learning my way around D&D 3.5 for my occasional Midnight campaign, so I approached this 4E demo with any eye toward possibly switching over to it eventually. We spent two hours around a table, slugging it out on the battlemap; for this, we got a free miniature and a free d20. Here are a few random thoughts.
Without a doubt, this ruleset was developed for use on the battlemap. Characters don’t move 25 feet in a round, they instead move 5 squares (a single square equaling 5 linear feet). Nearly all the special rules reference the battlemap in some way. The imagined spatial relationship that made old D&D so exciting (ex: “You’re about 20 feet from the bottomless pit and goblins are approaching from the west. What do you do?”) is completely gone, replaced with the sterile grid of the battlemap. Oh, and did I mention that WOTC sells its own D&D Miniatures game?
A laugh-out-loud moment occured for me during our first combat round, when the rogue character used one of his new “powers” to skewer a shadow spirit. I asked the player to describe the attack visually - I wasn’t satisfied with having him say “I attack the darkness!” Well, he looked at me dumbly for a long minute, then looked down at his character sheet and read the power description verbatim. It was something like "The thief produces a curved blade from the depths of his cloak and slashes at his foe!" This, it seems, is the extent of creativity and originality possessed by today’s D&D players. Given a premade character and a demo adventure, they prove themselves unable to deal with even a modicum of storytelling. Hope they never want to DM!
I drew a little criticism from my group because I (one of the two fighters) chose not to participate in our first fight. Instead, I tried to figure out the dungeon puzzle while the rest of the group slugged it out with the shadow spirit. Afterward the cleric player made some comments about my “role” in the party, and I responded that I was roleplaying. Roleplaying, not rollplaying. I generally disklike the four broad categories of character (striker, controller, leader and I forget the other one) and the forced playstyles they represent.
I did like the common-sense solution for feats. The designers, it seemed, split feats into combat powers, which got cool descriptions that made you want to use them over and over, and feats that you call on for various situations (like Snatch Arrows or somesuch). I also liked the idea of at-will/encounter/daily powers, although in retrospect they did seem to be a little too combat-centric for a group that doesn't break its campaign up into neat little encounter-sized chunks.