Tuesday, December 29, 2009

4e, the Ever-Expanding Core, and D&D Insider

Back in the day, core rolebooks used to come in triplicate.  You had your Player's Handbook, your DM's Guide and your Monster Manual (or some version of a monster book, be it a compendium or a manual or a folio).  This formula was present at the very beginning when the first version of Dungeons and Dragons came in a boxed set with three books presenting character options, monsters and treasures, and DMing advice on running adventures in the wilderness and underworld. 

Fourth edition has turned that notion upon its head, as each and every book that comes out is considered to be part of the "core" rules.  The first Player's Handbook (because there are already two and there will probably be more) only presented a handful of classes with the understanding that more would follow - and follow they have.  Each power source (every class in 4e draws upon a power source, martial power for a fighter, for instance) gets its own book with new options for existing classes that use that power source and new classes to boot.  Individual races get their own book.  Heck, Martial Power 2 is about to come out so even one extra book per power source is not enough!

In many circles, this ever-expanding core is a major strike against 4th edition.  What happened to the days of just needing a player's handbook, DM's guide, pencil, paper, dice and imagination?  Do they really expect people to shell out hundreds of dollars just to be able to make a character that can keep up with the Joneses? 

The short answer to this is no.  The idea that you have to buy all these books to utilize their content is rooted in an older age, an age that 4e is desperately trying to break away from.  I recently bought a one month subscription to D&D Insider for $10, and that gets me ALL the content published for 4e to date, including stuff from Dragon magazine, all bundled into a nifty character builder that lets me easily search through all the options available for my Dragonborn Ranger (or whatever other character I wanted to make).  One subscription also comes with five updates a month to the character builder, so basically your entire gaming group (or at least five of them) could have an up to date character builder for $2 each!  This is not a lot of money.  I plan on waiting a few months and then getting another month subscription to update everything, doing this either twice or three times a year for a total expenditure of $20 - $30 annually, which is about the price of a single core rulebook! 

The D&D Insider subscription also comes with access to the compendium, every rule in the game fully explained with up to date erata included, and every issue of Dragon and Dungeon magazine.  Now, I for one like the tactile sensation of holding an honest to goodness book, and I made my character and leveled her up for five levels using my physical copies of the Player's Handbook, PHB2 and Martial Power.  Having gone through that experience and comparing it with making a character using the character builder, I can say that I vastly prefer using the character builder.

One of the most common complaints against later editions of D&D, and conversely one of the things held up as a major strength of earlier editions, is how long it takes to make a character.  The argument goes that if you have to spend hours making a character (which was certainly the case in 3e) and you have to have a degree of rules mastery and knowledge of how feat choices interact with each other later down the road (which was doubly the case in 3e), this leads to an unwillingness to kill off characters because it just takes too long to make a new one.  If you die in OD&D, B/X D&D or AD&D, heck, you roll up a new character and get back in the saddle within a few minutes!

Let me tell you, if you haven't experienced the 4e Character Builder first hand, it makes generating a character almost that quick and easy.  Well, quicker and easier, actually, if you use the quick build option that lets the character builder choose your feats, skills and powers.  But even if you hand pick each option, having it guide you through each step and present you with all the choices and their definitions without having to flip a single page dramatically speeds up the character creation process.

I think in many ways, 4e is much closer to the old school ethos than some people would give it credit for.  It is certainly much more "old school" than 3e, with its dramatic reduction of skills and general de-emphasis on the penalty for trying a skill untrained and its rapid character generation.


  1. "Quick with a computer" just doesn't light my jets the same way "quick with dice" does.

  2. Yeah, its definitely not the same thing. I do think it is the way Wizards is trying to push people toward. I am sure they view the pay to subscribe to electonic content model as the way to go, with the example of WOW shining in their minds.

    I personally love the feel and look of an actual book, and usually end up buying a physical copy of a book over the PDF even if I already have the PDF, but in the case of the 4e character generater it justs beats the pants off using the books. It is a very long process to make a character otherwise, and that is certainly a strike against it.

  3. I think the point I was trying to make was that if you are at all curious about 4e but have never bought a single 4e book and are daunted looking at the mountain of "core" material, you should just try a month of D&D Insider. Even if you never subscribe for another month, you will have the character builder and monster generator (with all the monsters published to date!) that contains all the material that was current at the moment you bought it.

  4. regarding the "quick with dice" comment - 4e is actually trying to do away with dice rolling altogether in the character generation process! I rolled dice for my stats like I always had done and received some strange looks at the table because my stat array was not "possible" with the point buy method.

    4e is balanced and tuned like a race car engine, and this finely tuned instrument assumes a certain number or higher in your primary and secondary attributes or you will find yourself being frustrated with your inability to hit anything in combat.

    The more I think about it, the less I agree with my claim above that 4e is more old school than people give it credit for. There is too much of an emphasis on balance and explicitly spelled out abilities for it to be considered even a little old school.

  5. Those are interesting observations Carl. I too ran some D&D 4e adventures but purposely stopped at the 3 core books which I invested in when I started with D&D 4e. My other players have gone all out in buying up the supplements and other core books that came afterward. Me, I find the 4th edition with some unique merits and am not averse to running a 4e game once in a while. Nonetheless I've stopped with the 3 core books and a few choice elements here and there with any books that came after. I guess I'm just too busy and a bit too old to keep chasing after all the new material that comes afterwards. It's a different story with my other players though.

  6. I am in accord with spielmeister and Jeff R. on this. I think you (Carl) are right about D&D Insider being the way to go as far as 4e is concerned, a fact which lends credence to the notion that 4e is primarily targeted at the Internet-savvy, WOW crowd. As for me, I just don't like any system that requires that much constant upkeep, updating, and continuous cash expenditure. I want a simple, one-time buy-in with 1-3 core rulebooks AND THAT'S IT! Plus, along with Jeff, I LIKE ROLLING DICE. These are some of the reasons I have drifted away from my old 4e group even though I enjoy the people in that group immensely. I just cannot abide the whole WotC / 4e mindset.

  7. @ Carter - regarding the buy in, 3 core rulebooks cost a little over $100 bucks. You could update the character builder once a year for 10 years for the same expenditure and have all the character options, monsters, dragon articles and dungeon adventures, rules updates, etc. published for 4e in a decade for the cost of your one time buy in. And if you choose to stop updating it after your 10 years and $100, you still have all the character options and monsters that you accumulated for 10 years.

    The monster builder is particularly cool; not only does it have every monster published for 4e, it is a tool that helps you create your own monsters or re-skin an existing monster (taking one monsters powers and abilities and putting them in another monsters bodies to confuse the heck out of your monster manual memorizing players!).

    I totally understand the point about liking a pen and paper experience for character building/playing a game, but as far as 4e is concerned it makes no sense to buy the books. D&D Insider is the way to go if you are going to play 4e (which I know you aren't, unless I can twist your arm to play in a 4e campaign that I run - I know you would have fun with 4e the way I would run it).


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