However, the 4E team clearly set out to create a game that would live up to the expectations of the brand. This garnered it a nomination for this year's Diana Jones Award, an industry trophy that a secret cabal of gaming industry insiders (which includes me) hands out every year at Gen Con. As the DJA press release said about the game:
4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons advances the art of roleplaying game design, while boldly reinventing an industry flagship. Its central innovation, importing the exceptions-based principles first seen in the collectible card game, speeds and clarifies play. Creature statistics achieve a compactness and ease of use rarely seen in crunch-heavy games. The new logic allows for the dispatch of long-standing rules bugaboos in the briefest of paragraphs. Recalibrated math keeps the game stable over disparate levels of play. All said, though, the conceptual repercussions of its technical achievement would mean nothing if the game wasn't so lovingly attuned to the primal joys of kicking down doors, walloping orcs, and taking their stuff.
It's hard to top that.
If you're not into designer-speak, "exceptions-based principles" means that you start with a dead simple set of rules and then layer exceptions on them to increase the complexity and utility of the game. As a player, you only need to know the basic rules to start with, and you can pick up the exceptions as you go.
The classic example of exceptions-based gaming is the original collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, although the design style has its roots in the even-older Cosmic Encounter. It reaches its natural extreme in Fluxx, in which you start the game with a single card full of rules and most of the other cards methodically change the rules.
If you play an MMO, you're generally playing an exceptions-based game. The central systems for things like character design, movement, combat, and so on form the core of the game, and all the powers, skills, magic items, etc., that you can add are the exceptions. Because more people play MMOs than tabletop RPGs by a good order of magnitude, many of the potential new players for D&D have formed their expectations of how a tabletop RPG should work by playing MMOs. That includes kids the age of Marty and his friends.
D&D 4E has all that going for it, plus "the primal joys of kicking down doors, walloping orcs, and taking their stuff."
So, 4E it is.
Just last week, I sat down with our spanking-new gaming group for the first time with our new game of choice. Overall, the kids loved it. Next time around, you'll find out how that went.
Matt Forbeck has been writing and designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.