I Have No Game, and I Must Blog

Thoughts about 4th edition D&D, from a reading of the Dungeon Master’s Guide

S. Ben Melhuish • Thursday, January 14, 2010 • filed under shelves

On a whim, I checked out a copy of the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide from the local library.

As noted before, I have no plans to play any game any time soon, and D&D doesn’t scratch an itch I might have. But I’m still finding it an interesting read, even though most of the game rules appear to be in the Player’s Handbook. (My first game book having been the 1st edition DMG, one thing that disoriented me was the near complete lack of magic item descriptions in this book; apparently, like most rules, they now live in the Player’s Handbook.)

(Note, too, that this is merely from reading the rules. The way rules read and the way they work in actual play can be two very different beasts.)

Most importantly, 4e appears to spend much of its design energy on making life easier for the DM. This is great. With 3e, until you became an expert with the rules (I never did), prep time got significantly longer as the game got to higher levels. (Our game stopped at 14th level, which was plenty complicated thanks.) Here, the emphasis is on simple stat blocks, easily tweaked. (There is also a small section on what to do to prep for running a game if you have one, two, three, or four hours.)

The game also goes to great lengths to make explicit what was implicit in previous editions. For example, by name alone, one might expect a fighter to be the party member most responsible for dishing out melee damage. However, in our 3e game, we discovered after some time that they were better suited as “meat shields” (to use my brother’s term). In 4e, this is made explicit; fighters are classified as Defenders.

Along with that, there are a ton of guidelines for making challenges of the “right” difficulty. This is great. Even as a veteran DM, it’s great to understand what assumptions are built into the game, so I can break those assumptions intentionally rather than accidentally, and have more confidence that I’m going to accomplish my goal.

There’s also a bunch of material that appears to be geared primarily for novice DMs, though it’s certainly of interest to veterans. Player social dynamics are covered extensively, at least as compared to previous editions; for example, a section is an obvious adaptation of the player types from Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (e.g. Actor, Explorer, Instigator).

They didn’t manage to accomplish all their goals, unsurprisingly. The aforementioned Laws notes:

One thing I’ve learned to be on the lookout for is the creature who does less than the standard damage as given in the charts on p. 185 of the DMG. When creature damage is substantially lower, it’s always because it does some other funky thing that’s supposed to make up for it. My experience has been that the funky thing rarely wreaks a sufficiently significant toll on the PCs to justify the reduced damage.

So anyway. If I wanted to play a D&D-like game, which I still don’t, there is great appeal to the simplicity of 4th edition. Kudos to the designers for making a game that at least reads like it was designed well.