Tuesday, October 6, 2009

4th Edition : History and Multiclassing

First, a bit of background. I started with roleplaying games in the late 80's. My first forays into the hobby were the Marvel Super Heroes game by TSR and Mayfair's DC Heroes. I quickly expanded beyond that, with the oversized Basic Dungeons and Dragons box sets and then the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and then Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition.

I was pretty content with AD&D. I logged a ridiculous number of hours playing it with my friends - running adventures, building my own worlds. There were quirks to the system - a dozen different things would each have a completely different mechanic. Multi-classing and dual-classing were just bizarre. But the game had a good overall feel. I wasn't sure anything could be better.

When 3rd Edition was announced, I was extremely skeptical - D&D had only recently changed hands from TSR to relative upstart Wizards of the Coast. The internet was abuzz with speculation that D&D would become 'Magic the Gathering : The RPG'. I am a cautious sort, but I like to give things a chance - actually read the final printed editions of the books myself, that sort of thing.

And I loved it. All the same feel and flavor was there, but the system was unified. The contradictions removed. Instead, what I had was a versatile toolbox for building exactly whatever kind of characters I could envision. I was a big fan of 3rd Edition. Later, the so-called 3.5 revision felt like to small a change to justify the new core rulebook release, but I could see that the changes were necessary.

So then 4th Edition was announced about six months after it was said there were 'no plans for starting a new edition until next year at the earliest.' Hrm. Off to a bad start, but I was willing to give it the same chance I'd given 3rd. I'd buy the books, and check them out. So, I did.

Needless to say, I've got a lot of issues with 4th Edition. Whereas the negative buzz that circulated around 3rd Edition was wholly unjustified, with 4th, I found that the criticisms were fairly spot-on. Now, I'd like to offer my thoughts on 4th Edition, somewhat belatedly. (Hey, I didn't have a fulltime nerd-blog then - cut me some slack!)

I'll cut right to the most damning flaw of 4th Edition in my mind - multiclassing. To wit, the absence thereof. 3rd Edition had blown the doors of what was possible by allowing one to pick and choose different classes at different levels, resulting in a virtually infinite number of possibilities. With 4th Edition, you were stuck in your cookie-cutter mold from birth - you could dip your toe into the powers of a single alternate class, but never undertake any serious combination. To make matters worse, the base classes all have a very similar feel. There's no escaping the sense of sameness that pervades the system.

Here's a fun little math fact for you. The 3rd Edition Player's Handbook has 11 Base Classes. Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorceror, and Wizard. The number of distinct second-level characters you can generate (ignoring races and feats) is 66. Granted, 5 of those are forbidden by alignment restrictions (Bard and Barbarian don't go with Monk or Paladin; Paladins and Druids don't mix) - but that's 61 distinct characters out of the basic book. In 4th, you can't even look at multi-classing until the mid-levels, so the number of distinct 2nd level characters is the same as the number of distinct 1st level characters - eight.

Oh, sure, there are additional base classes becoming available with additional book purchases - and cynically, I think that's the motive. D&D 3E was a modular thing of beauty - you only need one core book to play whatever kind of fantasy character you want. D&D 4E straitjackets the characters so that if you want to play the rogue/warrior or the wizard/rogue or the warrior/wizard, you'll buy the new sourcebook containing a whole new base class that synthesizes the two.

When it comes to the flexbility to make distinct characters - both as a player and someone who enjoys worldbuilding for running campaigns - 4E is useless, and 3E is the platonic ideal.

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