For several months now my plan for 4th Edition has been to run the preview adventure — Keep on the Shadowfell — for my regular D&D group. My goal is to approach that experience with a completely open mind, see how it goes, and then use it to decide whether or not to spend the money on the core rulebooks. My current campaign, set in Ptolus, would stay 3rd Edition in any case. But if 4th Edition convinces me to make switch, then I’d probably use it for my next campaign.
A couple of days ago my copy of the module arrived from Amazon. I’ve now read through it, and have a few thoughts to share. So, on that note…
The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.
You have been fairly warned.
(1) The production values of the module are disappointing. It has a cover price of $30 and Amazon had been advertising it as a hardcover. It isn’t. Two flimsy pamphlets and three poster maps are packaged in a lightweight cardboard folder. And when I say “flimsy pamphlet” I mean flimsy. The paper is of a lighter weight than that previously used in Dragon and Dungeon magazine and the “covers” of the pamphlets are of the exact same paper. I am extraordinarily gentle with my reading material, and after a single reading the ink is already being rubbed off the edge of one “cover”. Frankly, I will be shocked if these last through a single session.
The poster maps are pretty nifty, although they follow the current WotC style of fetishizing light sources. Everything seems to glow: Walls, ceilings, furniture. These poster maps are lovingly rendered with computer graphics — but they have no reality to them.
(2) The writing in the Quick Start Rules is abominably bad. For anyone who hasn’t been played a roleplaying game before, the content here is completely inadequate for teaching them how to actually play the game. On the other hand, the writer has chosen to address the reader as if they had no idea what an RPG was. So the newbie isn’t helped and the experienced player feels like they’re being talked down to… who exactly is the target audience supposed to be for this pablum?
(3) The pregenerated characters, instead of being included on separate sheets (which the folder format would have allowed) are instead found at the back of the Quick Start Rules. This makes no sense.
(4) This may have been previously known, but it was the first time I realized that saving throws have a 55% chance of success instead of a 50% chance of success. (Instead of failing on 1-10 and succeeding on 11-20, they fail on 1-9 and succeed on 10-20.) I have no idea why they chose to do it that way.
(5) I am still annoyed that they undid 3rd Edition’s fix to the critical hit mechanics.
(6) The streamlined actions (standard/move/minor/free) are nice to see, along with the accompanying simplification of the rules for charging and running. I think they were right to conclude that the complexity of full actions wasn’t giving much in return. And I think replacing the concept of a 5-foot step with the idea of a “shift” (which doesn’t provoke an AoO but does require a move action) also simplifies the flow of combat.
(7) It is completely impossible to play 4th Edition without miniatures. Unlike every previous version of the game (including 3rd Edition), the game literally does not function without a grid. I typically use miniatures, but this still annoys me.
(You will probably still hear people talk about how 4th Edition can be played without miniatures. But given the sheer number of abilities which are only useful because they allow for very precise movement on the combat grid, this is roughly akin to claiming that you can play Chess without a board. While it’s true, it’s only because you’re explicitly imagining the board in your head. In 3rd Edition this wasn’t the case: When I played without miniatures in 3rd Edition, I was imagining the game world and then using the mechanics — which were all based on real-world measurements — to adjudicate. The 3.5 revision weakened that connection somewhat by using squares as the default terminology, but the underlying mechanics of 3.0 were still essentially unchanged. 4th Edition embraces the grid completely and irrevocably.)
(8) The fact that you lose unspent action points when you take an extended rest reminds me of this blog post at Rampant Games. Its a mechanic that encourages players to push on without rest… unless, of course, they’ve expended all their accumulated action points. (However, I have been informed that you can only spend one action point per encounter. This rule doesn’t appear in the Quick Start Rules, but if it’s true then it obviates this advantage of the system entirely.)
(9) Contrary to the designers’ claims, however, I doubt that the 15-minute adventuring day is going anywhere. This was inevitable, of course, because the 15-minute adventuring day had nothing to do with the system (except insofar as the system features daily-based spike powers) and everything to do with DMing style.