The Magic Tree


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By Tommy Donovan
I’ve been playing role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons for almost twenty years and in that time I’ve seen a lot of systems and settings go in and out of fashion. The one that has been the constant is D&D. Even as TSR sat on the brink of abyss I never worried that the game would just go away. My steadfast belief was proven correct when Wizards of the Coast, the world leader in collectible card games, purchased the faltering company. WOTC has taken the D&D brand and expanded it into a multimedia and multiple game format money making machine. No matter if you prefer miniatures, video games or good old fashioned pen and paper RPG’s there is something for everyone.
Over the summer the much heralded fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons was released and since then a deluge of new product has flowed from the mad geniuses at Wizards. As with any D&D release, the first wave was the three core books; the Player’s Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), and the first of what I assume will be many Monster Manuals (MM).
My first experience with D&D was the Basic set that came out around the same time as second edition. It was a simplified version of the game and was great for introducing me to the game. I soon started to go looking for stores that sold gaming books and picked up the first edition Player’s Handbook. It was a black and white mess of small type and hard to follow instructions. My friends and I spent hours making characters with the overly complicated rules and played for years with those books. When I finally picked up the second edition PHB it was like upgrading your Studebaker with a rocket. The rules were much easier to follow and specializing in one thing or another was way easier to figure out. Unfortunately a lot of that specialization called for extra tables and charts and long pauses in game play while we looked up some of the harder to remember rules. I completely missed out on third edition but one Saturday afternoon in July sucked me back in.
For the second year, Wizards held their “Worldwide D&D Game Day” where they send participating stores several kits so that new players and returning adventurers can come in and play a game. The kits include everything needed to play; dice, the adventure, a map and all the miniatures required for the adventure. This year they sent along a quick start rule set for 4th edition. In a word, it was amazing. The combat was so streamlined and efficient that it moved nearly as fast as an actual fight. Everyone who came to play had a fantastic time. As for the Dungeon Master’s it seems that the new rules and well thought out adventures were a boon to them as well. One of the DM’s we had for WWD&DGD saw the adventure module for the first time when we sat down to play and he ran it flawlessly. There were puzzles and traps and clever monsters and even going in with no prep the game was immensely fun.
Several weeks later I picked up all three of the new 4th edition books. Rarely am I impressed with packaging but even if the game inside had completely sucked the books would have been a nice addition to my bookshelf. Luckily they ended up even better than I would have imagined. I thought when I first picked them up about doing a review but I decided then that I needed to actually play the game before I could make any kind of informed decision. After a few months of running my own campaign I only have complimentary things to say about D&D 4th edition.
Unless you’re running a game, there is no reason you have to buy anything other than the Player’s Handbook. All the rules for character creation, combat, equipment and magic are contained in one thirty five dollar book. It’s written in clear language with handy tables and art that is far superior to anything in any of the previous editions of the rules. One of the things that I found to be vastly improved was the breakdown of skills. The skill list on the character sheet had grown quite cumbersome and the specialized skill checks (use rope? Really?) were sometimes ridiculous. The new skills list has been streamlined and many skills have been bundled together as one (pick lock, detect trap, find secret door are all now listed under “Thievery”) while others have been made into feats (the language skill is now the Linguist feat). This makes deciding what kind of check to make much easier and can help relive some game delay if you happen to be playing with a rules lawyer.
My favorite new feature is the was attack powers and spells are done. Every character gets a certain number of powers, some that can only be used once a day, once per encounter or any time. This makes special attacks a normal part of gaming. Just swinging a sword at an enemy isn’t nearly as cool as using your Reaping Strike at will power or your Spinning Sweep encounter power. Giving these kinds of attacks to every character class adds a whole new dimension to the game that I didn’t even know it was lacking.
The feeling of epic fantasty has been increased much beyond what it once was. Making a character in 2nd or 3rd edition would net you 4-15 hit points. The lowest number I’ve seen so far is around 22. Bulking up the player characters (PC’s) seems a little like cheating until you start playing. The first adventure module “Keep On The Shadowfell” claims to be for five characters starting at level one. I started the module with five characters of second level and they still would have died if not for a little creative dice rolling and jiggering of stats on my part. This isn’t a drawback at all despite how that last sentence sounded. Creative thinking has kept my party alive more than brute strength (though there is a bit of that as well). Fourth edition seems to be streamlined for ease of play (especially for the DM) but its also designed to reward players who can think their way out of a situation. Several times my group has been in a tight spot and worked their way through it not by barreling in but out thinking the monster (and by extension me).
There are a thousand little improvements that I could touch on but the gist of it is that Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is the best upgrade so far of this venerable franchise. I can see everyone in my party continuing to play this game for many more years without getting tired, something that I can’t say about any other game out there.


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