Posted by : David Guyll August 22, 2014

Up until recently I'd been playing a lot of Dungeon World, and while I enjoyed it well enough I didn't enjoy it for the content so much as the Apocalypse World engine; I've seen some of Apocalypse World: Dark Ages, and as a fantasy game it looks so, sooo much better.

That's what really makes it shine: not clerics with a not-as-nonsensical-but-still-nonsense magic system, or wizards with a more Vancian-then-pseudo-Vancian system, or paladins that can by default only be human, or fighters that are for some reason are all really good at bending bars and lifting gates.

Nope, it's really the fact that, thanks to being Powered by the Apocalypse, that you end up with something simple, flexible, pretty functional, easily hackable, and actively encourages collaborative worldbuilding. But, that's not what this post about (though it is what this one's about).

What this post is about, is my favorite, licensed RPG, and the answer might have come as a surprise to some if I hadn't slapped a big-ass image of the 4th Edition Player's Handbook up there, but it is 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

I've been a Dungeons & Dragons fan for over twenty years, but for quite some time now I've fully believed that the only reason I enjoyed previous editions was because I didn't have anything to compare them to, namely other dungeon-crawly-type games.

I mean, when it came to fantasy games my only other option even when 3rd Edition came out was Palladium Fantasy, a game where massively front-loaded characters can take over an hour to roll up due to the massive list of stats, skills, equipment, leveling is pretty damned pointless, and so on.

4th Edition marks the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I am continuing to stick with, because despite it's faults (and unlike 5th Edition) it made numerous sweeping improvements to Dungeons & Dragons that if nothing else at least justified buying new books:

  • Unlike 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Edition, characters are flexible. All of them, not just the spellcasters. You get to make a lot of choices at the start (I'd say too many), and get to make a choice every time you level. No settling with what the designers feel that you should have. No picking one thing early on that locks in every other choice down the road. No, you have so much control over where your character goes, even before you factor in multiclassing, backgrounds, themes, hybrid classes, and skill powers.
  • Magical healing is not mandatory (which is also true in most fantasy fiction), though a class with the leader role is helpful. Even better, there are leaders for every power source, so if you want to do a low- no-magic campaign (or all primal, or all magical, all psychic, etc), you can do that right out of the box, with the first Player's Handbook, in fact.
  • Hell, spellcasters in general aren't mandatory (also like most fantasy fiction). You don't need a wizard to pull some instant-win/bypass spell out of her ass (most utility magic are rituals anyway), and in fact not only can anyone use a ritual scroll, anyone can spend a feat to take Ritual Caster and have access to "pay-per-cast" magic.
  • Task resolution is the same across the board: if you do something, make with the fucking dice. Makes much more sense than, "Roll to hit, except if you use magic, sometimes anyway; then the target makes a roll to avoid it, which can still mean they take some damage because arbitrary rules, yo." 
  • Not everything is based on "the day". Yeah, spellcasters still don't make any goddamn sense, but at least you'll never have the issue of the 15-minute workday. This makes it so much easier to better pace adventures, instead of having to grind everything to a halt due to one bad encounter (possibly one bad roll).
  • Bard's don't suck, nor do they require specialized builds to become merely incompetent. Actually, no class really sucks (no, not even vampires).
  • Solo monsters weren't ideal at first, but still better than surrounding a dragon or giant in 3rd Edition and just hitting it until it invariably fell over. They got a much-needed tune up when Monster Manual 3 came out.
  • Same for skill challenges. They were supposed to be a way for everyone to contribute meaningfully to a non-combat challenge, but were fucking horribly showcased at the start. I remember somewhere around Dark Legacy of Evard they started getting good, which unfortunately was years into the game.
  • It is incredibly easy to build complex monsters, even complex encounters, making them precisely as difficult as you want them to be. Plus, everything a monster can do is self-contained: you don't have to reference one or more other books to figure out what it can do.
  • It's also incredibly easy to houserule and re-skin stuff. I mean, there's really no reason why you can't just say fuck it to multiclassing feats, and just let people pick a power from any class of their level or lower. Same goes for letting people pick whatever skills they want, tweaking the math every so slightly to avoid the "necessity" of math feats, changing all wizard spells to encounter-based (and adjusting the damage) to get a "true" Vancian model going on, and just shucking the "mandatory" grid.

In a nutshell the game is much, much more flexible, intuitive, and elegant than the other editions. A few people have recommended 13th Age to me, and while it looks intriguing I haven't actually played it, so I can't say if I would enjoy it more (I will say that I am not a fan of the +1 to stuff per level, though the Escalation Die looks neat).

I fully intend to change that once my workload peters off a bit (still cleaning the new house, Fright Night and Sundered World kickstarters, and some other projects), and we get an internet connection that can actually support a Hangout game.

Until then, 4th Edition remains firmly rooted in first place, followed by FATE and Dungeon World.

{ 1 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. One of the strangest things I really like about 4e is how you could play a Paladin with almost no Strength score. By focusing on Charisma attacks you could still be heavily armored and brutal in melee, but still be physically weak.

    I always imagine Joan of Arc type heroes ascended from the peasantry or old, frail knights who still kick every butt in a crusade through sheer force of will and divine grace. 3.5 and 5 pretty much lock you down as the burly holy soldier type, which misses out on those previous concepts.

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