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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My retrospective

Just because I can, I'll share my opinions on the editions of D&D. I started with the red box, bought the AD&D rule books, and basically used the AD&D rules. I wasn't actively playing in high school, so didn't get into 2nd edition until college. From there, I got involved in organized play, which used whatever the current rules set was, and so played 3rd and 4th from the beginning.

My favorite edition? 3e/3.5e. (There were only minimal changes to the fundamental game rules with 3.5e, so I'll call them the same.) The biggest change in this edition was a moderate focus on tactical combat. Just making using a square grid and miniatures changed the game a lot. Before, you'd tell the DM "I'll advance on the orc and swing my sword." Now, you'd actually see the orcs, and their placement would matter. You'd have a clear idea if you might get surrounded. You could move for tactical advantage, with flanking and setting yourself up for opportunity attacks. And it was relevant for all those spellcasters with their area effect spells. Better place that fireball carefully!

Still, there were issues with these tactical rules, issues that were left unclear by the rules as written. For example, how does flanking change with reach attacks and large creatures? How about cover? A few examples, published on their web site, would have helped immensely. Another example is exactly how to translate a shape (like a 20 foot radius circle) to a grid of 5 by 5 squares, which wasn't addressed until 3.5e. (Hopefully, the design of 5th edition will make sure the rules are clear. Wizards of the Coast also designs Magic: the Gathering, where they use very specific wordings, publish comprehensive rules with exactly one right answer, and issue FAQs with each new set release, including detailing confusing interactions. There's no reason this can't be done with D&D.)

Other things I liked:
  • Spells were familiar to players of past editions, but standardized in rules, using a limited number of ranges, areas, and durations. 1st edition was more random, whatever Gygax or one of his friends thought fit.
  • A reasonable system of skills was introduced to the game. Proficiencies in 2nd edition were just painful to anyone with basic math skills, with a check being based entirely off one's stat.
  • Attributes actually had meaning. In 2nd edition, a Wisdom of 8 was for almost all purposes identical to a 14. 3e's +1 per 2 points allowed an attribute point buy system that went beyond 18/18/18/8/8/8.
  • Three saving throws: Fortitude, Reflex, Will. Easy to understand. Easy for a DM to create a new effect and decide which category of saves to use.
  • Magic items made more sense, were more flexible, and could be crafted using standard rules.
  • Clerics channeling healing allowed a cleric to prepare a variety of useful spells, while still being able to heal when needed.

Things I didn't like about 3.5e:

  • There were some obvious abuses in designing monsters, including advancing them and adding templates. There were abusive spells, like Blasphemy. There were challenge ratings that often didn't make sense. (A CR 12 monster with the spellcasting of a 18th level sorcerer. An 18th level sorcerer is a CR 18 foe. And adding a level of warrior didn't affect the CR at all.) These problems, and using terrain and hindering effects, allowed one to be a "killer" DM with relative ease. Not a big issue for a home game, but a big problem for organized play, where modules should be run as written.
  • The importance of saving throws, and how bonuses were earned, encouraged combining multiple classes. There was little reason to stay a sorcerer, and every reason to add prestige classes.
  • The inevitable power creep. (4e would address this problem by constantly refining abusive powers, which resulted in rulebooks that couldn't be used as written.)
  • Low level problems for spellcasters. Zero level spells helped, but you'd still see wizards reduced to using a crossbow instead of spells. Something like at-will zero level power spells would be nice. Fighters didn't have this problem, because swinging a sword was always available. Similarly, sometimes it was right for a spellcaster to do nothing, conserving resources. That isn't particularly fun.

In contrast, 4th edition had very few positives:

  • A standard set of actions: move, minor, standard. Also one immediate action. (3.5e was leaning in this direction in its later days.)
  • No more "save or die". Effects like petrification that previously could remove you from combat entirely... didn't, in 4e.
  • It finally cured the fighter linear-wizard quadratic power issue, where the power of spellcasters simply grew much faster with levels. But for many, the cure was worse than the disease. "Too balanced" is a criticism of 4e.
  • By focusing the rules almost entirely on combat, we lost the feel of a role-playing game. Fun magic items and noncombat spells played a role in 2e and 3e, helping overcome obstacles that weren't combat. No more in 4e: everything was forced towards die rolls.

So, my ideal 5th edition would most resemble 3rd edition, including iconic races and classes from multiple editions, a variety of spells including those for noncombat use, and better powers for low level spellcasters and high level fighters.


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