Neverwinter's 4th Edition Rules: Good or Bad?

By Jeff Sproul -
Neverwinter's 4th Edition Ruleset

I'll be upfront about this: I am very much not a fan of the 4th Edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons. It's not because I'm old and cranky and hate change and progress - I'll admit to being old and cranky, but I embrace change. I like new things... like Neverwinter, the first MMO to use the 4th Edition rules as a backbone. I like the game, but I hate the rules.

I'm not going to go into a detailed history of D&D rulesets or my own experiences with them and other systems. Suffice it to say, I've been playing tabletop RPGs for a long time and have used a lot of different systems over the years. The d20 system and the 3.0/3.5 Edition ruleset for Dungeons & Dragon, to me, represents the pinnacle of roleplaying game systems. It is simple enough to learn even for newcomers, complex enough to be interesting, and adaptable enough to be shoehorned into any setting. It's the backbone for Dungeons & Dragons Online, and was the ruleset for the game that converted me from a casual to a hardcore gamer: Neverwinter Nights.

When 4th Edition came along in 2008, I was interested, and paid attention to its development. The more people talked about it, the more it became apparent that it was a system attempting to appeal to the MMO crowd. When I finally got an opportunity to read the books, it was a crushing disappointment. Like when you try to open that big iron-bound chest deep inside the dungeon, only to discover that it is, in fact, a Mimic.

Neverwinter 4th Edition Ruleset - Mimic

Half the core classes were stripped away, gnomes and half-orcs were replaced by dragon-people, demon-people and yet another flavor of elf, and the classes seemed to have that same on-rails, cookie-cutter advancement system that one finds in most MMOs. Everything got homogenized - dumbass Fighters can now cast non-combat "ritual" spells that were formerly the province of Clerics and Wizards, everybody can heal themselves with Healing Surges. Big numbers are the norm instead of the exception. The awesome becomes the mundane. If you want to play a Druid or a Gnome or, gods help you, some kind of Monk, you have to spend another 30 bucks on a supplementary "core rulebook."

And because WotC no longer trusts its customers to use their imaginations, everything is heavily-focused on minatures, and every attack is given graphic "flavor text" in its description. It feels like the next logical step is to have a Wizards of the Coast employee show up at your next gaming session and say, "You guys are playing this all wrong. Here, let me just take your character sheets away and play all this for you."

That's how the tabletop rules feel, anyway. When they're out there in front of you and you have to read the words on the page, the whole thing feels dumbed-down, overblown and vaguely insulting - you're playing a soulless MMO without the flashy graphics and sounds. When you experience it as the backbone of a MMO, on the other hand, it feels far less annoying. The math all happens "under the hood," so you don't see all the things that make guys like me so very angry.

The impact of the 4th Edition ruleset in Neverwinter, the first MMO to feature 4E rules, will be felt more keenly by some than by others. People coming from DDO, for example, will possibly be confused by the slightly different role of character stats, the restrictive nature of the classes and the inability to multiclass. Neverwinter is a very different game than DDO, not just in terms of the ruleset but also the setting and style.

Neverwinter 4th Edition Rules - group fight

People coming from a tabletop pen-and-paper D&D background, who are familiar with the system but not so much with MMOs, will find the system familiar but altered to make it more MMO friendly. For example, level benefits are "stretched out" so characters only get a stat increase every 10 levels instead of every 4 levels, characters have far more Hit Points (and deal far more damage) than they normally would using dice, and characters will reach higher levels before they are considered "epic." They will also notice a limited selection of Daily and Encounter powers compared to the broader assortment available in the books. The guys with all of the core books and a library of supplemental books will find even more limitations - a lot of details had to be pared down to make Neverwinter accessible and manageable.

New players coming to Neverwinter from a MMO background with no previous exposure to D&D will not likely find anything to rage about. The system, which is already suspiciously MMO-friendly, fits like a glove, and most elements will be familiar to some degree. Neverwinter is, after all, based on the game system (or, rather, the bastard great-grandson of the original) that stands as the progenitor to essentially all fantasy roleplaying games, be they video or other. Neverwinter will inevitably get compared to Guild Wars 2 because the controls are somewhat similar. It will also draw comparisons to DDO because of the Dungeons & Dragons license, though DDO is set in Eberron and Neverwinter is set in the Forgotten Realms. And, of course, it will be compared to World of Warcraft because it is a MMORPG with a high-fantasy setting. And no, the people making that particular comparison won't see the irony.

As much as I hate 4th Edition rules, I still found the Neverwinter beta to be an enjoyable experience. Most of the angry-making stuff happens under the hood, out of sight and out of mind. And it's not like they had a real choice in the matter - if a company wants to make a licensed D&D game, they don't get to pick and choose what ruleset they want to use. The only reason DDO isn't using 4E rules is because DDO came out first.

Despite the horrible ruleset, Neverwinter feels very D&D-like, as opposed to feeling more MMO-like. A large part of that is the Foundry, which will allow players to create their own adventures and distribute them to other players in-game. This is the very heart and soul of D&D - creating adventures to play with your buddies, regardless of the ruleset being used.

What's your take on 4E and its use in Neverwinter? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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