I’ve been reading through the free introductory rules for D&D 4th Edition thanks in large part to a full-court press marketing effort that includes the diverting “TinyAdventures” facebook app. I’d heard that Wizards had made more changes to D&D in their fourth edition than any previous edition — I think that’s debatable — but it did encourage me to at least take a look.
One thing you have to give credit to the designers of the latest edition for is that they actually appear to have created pretty solid mechanics. Third edition was full of ridiculously bad design decisions, including opportunity attack rules that were at best highly entertaining for rules lawyers, and a half-assed attempt to make character creation flexible that simply punished anyone who tried to make an interesting character.
4th Edition is, in essence, 2nd edition’s character classes with 3rd edition’s combat system — but both cleaned up and adapted to the MMORPG era. While it may seem annoying and oversimplistic to pigeon-hole character classes in MMORPG terms (e.g. defining anyone who buffs or heals as a “leader”) it actually is very helpful in monster descriptions (making the behavior of a monster actually a lot clearer).
D&D has fundamental conceptual flaws as a “role-playing” game (unless you define “role-playing” to be “whatever it is that D&D players do”), but if you accept that “role-playing” is essentially cheating during character generation, combat, tallying loot and experience, and rearranging your equipment — 4th edition seems to do it better than any previous incarnation.
If you’re looking for fixes to fundamental problems — e.g. the entire concept of character classes, levels, hit points, you’re either alive or dead or (very very occasionally) unconscious, alignments (versus personalities), armor making you harder to hit (rather than mitigating damage). What we do get is solid, flexible definitions (e.g. when is a character “helpless” and what does this mean?), a somewhat complex (given how unrealistic D&D is) but pretty thorough sequence of play, and a lot of the tedium and bookkeeping of D&D removed.
E.g. most powers are usable “at will”, “once per encounter”, or “once per day”. That’s clear, simple, and easy to keep track of. In particular, wizards have a nice selection of spell “powers” they can fire off like Tim the Enchanter instead of a ridiculously small set of one-use powers with very limited application. An “encounter” is any period of action between rests (short or long). There are some abilities that can only be restored by one long rest or two short ones. Monsters regain powers randomly during encounters rather than having to be tracked.
The rules are a bit more “object-oriented” too. Instead of everything being a member of a category (e.g. a monster is either a demon or a dragon, a spell is either conjuration or necromantic), there are “keywords” that act like mixin-classes (if you’re a programmer). So a monster can be an undead, demon, dragon and a spell can be necromantic and conjuration — which is both sensible, simplifying, and less annoying for close readers of rules. (Perhaps I like this because ForeSight has a generalized system of “adjectives” or “modifications” that works like this for virtually everything — it’s only taken D&D 23 years to catch up.)
One of the more interesting aspects of the new rules is how they seem to have reacted to, built upon, and generally improved on some of the fishier aspects of CRPGs and MMORPGs. E.g. characters can get a “second wind” once per encounter (more or less — there’s a daily limit) which essentially lets them recover some health by (in Martials Arts film terms) squaring their shoulders, puffing out their chests, and tearing off their shirts. The way the notorious “taunt” ability works in D&D4 is the way it ought to work in every CRPG — if you’re standing next to a fighter then you’d damn well better pay attention to that fighter or he/she will rip you a new one. In other words, “mobs” don’t attack warriors because “they generate more aggro”, but because if they don’t the warriors will kill them and they know it. Bravo.
(And a warrior who can’t actually hurt a mob won’t be able to hold its attention — again, as it should be. Versus every MMORPG I’ve played where a tank class basically can’t do real damage.)
D&D4 has enough of a skill system and — more importantly — the designers seem to have the right spirit in their examples (with skills being used in a free-flowing way to make stuff happen out of combat) for people wanting to actually role-play to have a good deal of fun.
I may have to actually try playing it.