Yesterday, I ran a game of D&D with a group of great, enthusiastic gamers. And ironically, on the 40th birthday of this very game, I discovered a heartbreaking truth: D&D 4th Edition is Not My Thing.
This is tragic news to me. As I've stated many times in the past, I want to be an ambassador to role-playing games. It's always been an overarching goal of mine to attract new players to the hobby. A vital tool to that has been this game, which carries enough name and brand recognition to help me sell the hobby. With yesterday's discovery of D&D 4E not being my thing, this job just got a lot harder. Hell, after this revelation, it might even be time for a new job, as it were.
How did I discover this? Put simply, the game went as smoothly as it could, and yet I didn't have fun. I had four players: a Warrior, a Wizard, a Ranger, and a Bard. Only the Wizard had any experience with D&D; the other three were complete newbs. The adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, was written more or less specifically with introducing players to the game in mind. In theory, this is exactly the setup I want: new, enthusiastic players; one of the most polished, prized RPGs in the hobby; and an adventure written from the ground up to maximize the potential of both.
The players had a blast. I, however, kept staring at the clock and getting a pitch ready for the game I wanted to play after the session was over.
This is hardly an unusual experience. Time and again, I've sacrificied my own interest in a game in favor of bringing others in. I do it all the time, and I recognize it as a cost sometimes necessary to achieve my goal. "Taking one for the team," as it were. Usually, though, achieving my goal makes the sacrifice worthwhile. This was not the case yesterday. Yesterday, looking back at everything, I think I would have rather just cancelled the game, stayed in, and played Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag all day.
So what, exactly, about D&D's 4th edition is turning me off so much? I'll rattle off a few of the fatal grievances here:
1. The Math is Too High. I heard a variation on this sentence at least a hundred times yesterday: "I rolled a 14...6, 7, 8...-2...25, total, and 6...9...12 damage." I wrote in my last entry that in my ideal RPG, you know whether an action succeeds or fails as soon as the dice hit the table. After many sessions of D&D, I can now say in all confidence that nothing could be further from that ideal than this game.
2. Disconnect Between Players and DM. Another teeth-grinding experience that was part of yesterday's game was the constant flipping through the Player's Handbook looking for specifics on abilities the players have. I was almost completely useless in this, because I spent all my prep time studying the adventure, not studying character creation. In D&D, making a character and running the game are almost two completely different experiences, and being proficient at one doesn't mean a thing about the other. When you add in classes from multiple handbooks and internet resources, it makes knowing everything about character creation and character capabilities nearly impossible. It could take years to become an expert on just one class, let alone the 14 or so I allowed in my game. Many players probably love this level of depth on their side of the mechanics, but to me, that just means less stuff I can know and help smooth over.
3. Disconnect Between Encounters and Role-playing. Yesterday's session was three scenes: a battle, exploring a small town and gathering information from NPCs, and another battle. Guess which scene was the shortest? Guess which one required the least amount of dice rolling and rules consulting? And, finally, guess which one I had the most fun with? Yes, D&D can handle role-playing and puzzle solving and all that stuff as well as nearly any other RPG out there. But that is clearly not the focus of D&D, and it shows in the gameplay.
4. Too Much To Keep Track Of. I absolutely despise stopping the action to write something down. The way I see it, if I or my players can't remember it accurately, then it probably wasn't important in the first place. That simply is not the case in D&D. In the second battle of the afternoon, I had five monsters battling the PCs, and each of them had various conditions and afflictions on them, on top of keeping track of the damage the PCs heaped onto them. The players were routinely confusing one monster with another, further compounding the headache. Then I started doing it, forgetting which kobold was asleep, which one was taking ongoing damage, which one was getting a flanking bonus, and which one couldn't move. I was so close to just saying "fuck it; YOU KILL THEM ALL!" I take full responsibility for this lack of organization. But I also say that this isn't what I want to do in an RPG. A boardgame? A wargame? Sure, fine, whatever. But an RPG? No.
I've spent a long time defending D&D. And I will continue to do so. It's a great game. But it's just Not My Thing.