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Notes on Session One of Dungeons & Dragons at Simon's

I've been meaning to mention that a couple of weeks ago, I did the first roleplay gaming that I've done in, sheesh, it must be around a year and a half. Simon was the gamemaster – well, actually, dungeon master, which should tell you fellow gamers out there that the game in question was Dungeons & Dragons, specifically 4th Edition. Although I've owned the Player's Handbook for about a year now, this was the first time I'd ever actually played a game.

I like it. After the first encounter, when there was talk of stopping, I spoke up for pressing on to the next encounter. In hindsight that was a mistake, as my fellow players – Simon and Cristel's four kids – can usually only handle a single encounter before getting bored. Simon's talking about setting up an adult gamers' group sometime in the future, although I reckon that'll be after Christmas. And I'd gladly be a part of it (hopefully I can drag Vickie along once she's recovered from her operation).

So what do I enjoy? Even though my dragonborn warlord was only first level, I felt as though my character sheet gave me plenty of options when it came to encounters. I like 4th Edition's new Powers system, where every class gets a selection of special abilities (be they a wizard's spells, a fighter's martial techniques or a cleric's divine gifts) which can be improved or swapped out for new ones as you level up. First level characters actually get a decent choice of abilities to start off with, and while I'd never played a dragonborn or a warlord before I had a clear idea of how my character was meant to function in an encounter (D&D jargon for fight or other momentous event) and once I got the hang of combat (fairly quickly) I was an effective part of the team, using my warlord's exploits to aid in a couple of sticky situations.

Now, I will say that 4th Edition seems to function best as a small-scale tactical wargame, with the “roleplaying” elements (character portrayal, the flavour of the world) treated as tasty garnish on a hearty meal. Those powers are like little toys begging to be played with, and the “mechanics” of the game Swing Into Action when encounters start. It might help comparing it to a modern electronic game; while the movie-like cut-scenes give the next fight a context and the player an emotional buy-in for getting to it, the real fun of the game starts when you pick up the controller or mouse and begin interacting with the game's opponents. And while some may dredge up the tired and dysfunctional argument of “roleplay versus roll-play” I have to commend D&D 4th Edition for having a clear cut vision of the kind of play it enables and sticking to its guns.

Would I ever be a dungeon master myself? No, I don't think so. I think 4th Edition requires somewhat more of a financial investment beyond the Core Rulebooks (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual, around AU$40 apiece) in order to get it running smoothly, and while I have a battle-mat (a large vinyl grid-map that can be drawn on with dry-erase markers) I don't have the finances to get miniatures, let alone the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual.

A couple of paragraphs ago, I compared D&D to video games, and there's another parallel I can draw. In an interview with Atomic magazine, artificial intelligence developer Dr. Ian Davis said that “... the goal of an AI (for an opponent) is lose convincingly.” The dungeon master in D&D, I feel, has a similar role. He's stuck in the unenviable position of making sure that a fairly complex system doesn't push the players so far as to kill their enjoyment, and as such has to put a lot of work into understanding the ins and outs of that complex system. Then, when you factor in all the supplements for the game which introduce extra powers, pieces of equipment and other abilities... Doing that much homework really doesn't interest me. Plus, having discovered my competitive streak through indoor soccer and Halo 3, the idea of pulling my punches seems kind of counterintuitive.

Then, as a participant in a roleplaying game, there's my desire for my players to entertain me as much as I entertain them, and maybe I'm judging this way too early, but I think that D&D's focus on being a very entertaining fantasy skirmish game won't give me, as a dungeon master, as much potential entertainment value as some other games whose rules are designed to help a bunch of people put their focus on challenging their characters as characters and not as tactical playing pieces, games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, The Shadow of Yesterday, Houses of the Blooded. The games I'd love to try if I weren't so terrified of tripping over the fine line between compelling, intriguing interpersonal drama and and outright ham (Dan, you know all the reasons I listed last night for why I'm scared of running Dogs in the Vineyard? This is the real one).

Still, after playing D&D, I did pull my Star Wars Saga Edition rulebook off the gaming shelf and give it another read-through, ostensibly to compare how the two similar systems do things, but not a little because I'm tempted to run it again...

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Comments

I have played a few sessions of 4th edition, and I quite enjoyed them. The system is built around making fights interesting, leaving the role playing bits largely up the DM, with a little guidance and a dumb skill challenge system.

I'm happy with that, i'm not into role playing that much but a little is OK. From what my DM says it's easy to whip up a series of encounters in 4e, it's the plot hooks that are hard to invent and deal with!

Thanks for posting, Hayama! So you're pretty much digging the tactical challenge, right? What are some of the cool bits of that for you? And is the amount of RP you (singular or group) do fun of itself?

Like you, I enjoyed playing 4th ed, but I can't see myself GMing it.

Talking about outright hamming it. I remember playing a game called teenage mutants from outer space. Which was a very slapstick approach of playing a game and was a lot of fun.

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