Last night, I played my first game of 4th Edition. I journeyed down to a gaming club here in town, where they play pretty much ONLY 4th edition. The organizer told me that IF he gets enough people to fill a 3.5 table, he does, but they don't last long. He did not bring up the subject of earlier editions and neither did I.
I can't avoid a rant about the 'problems' with 4th Edition. Obviously, for the players of that system, there are no 'problems.' However, I have some observances that I'd like to discuss.
First of all, the thing that people most complain about, the dragging length of combat, was not so bad. Combat runs at the speed of an earlier-version D&D game played by floundering, inexperienced players ... except that of course these people supposedly know what's going on. It took me about ten minutes to understand at least all that my character could do, which as a 1st level thief wasn't much. A mage, I think, would have taken longer ... but all the characters seem to 'swing' like fighters. The same basic attack is performed in the same basic way from round to round - only the number of persons it affects, the damage it does, or the number of times one attacks seems to change. I found that aspect deathly dull.
As I did the process of doing damage. It is RARE that a character does not do damage in a given round, heaps of damage by early D&D standards, and the damage makes very little difference, like giving someone a firehose, letting them get a sense of the power of it, then asking them to extinguish a volcano. Little halfling thief that I was, I did 62 damage over five rounds and the total effect of all that damage was ... nothing. At least, there was no indication that the damage had any effect. I have forgotten what its like to play a system where a combatant with 1 hit point and a combatant with 100 hit points has exactly the same combat effectiveness.
The attitude of the players around the table, and the combat itself, reminded me FAR more of Panzerblitz or Squad Leader than role-playing. Perhaps Axis & Allies would be more apt ... because movement was treated VERY imprecisely, by a DM who was clearly worried about the length of the rounds. There was something about the running around and the total lack of movement adjustment to attacks that reminded me of Calvin Ball. No one seemed to mind; I certainly did not give any indication that I did. Everyone was pleased with my participation and encouraged me to return.
I have a little insight now as to why my combat system does seem a little ... hm ... restrictive. I argue that you can either run or fight, but there isn't time to do both. I argue that the process of generating enough power to create a lightning bolt, meteor storm or even an unseen servant actually requires time. I argue that being hit has, well, an effect. And I argue that one hit point of damage ought to have some actual meaning.
Very out of step, isn't it?
There were other reasons I was bored during the game, but all of that had to do with the actual nature and experience of the DM. It was particularly humourous when, as the battle went on and on, the bad luck of the party and the plainly superior powers of the monsters was deeply out of synch, and we were all going to die (it does eventually happen, but it's like the taxi you called at dinner showing up at your door after you've given up, taken the bus, come back and dressed for bed).
As he rolled dice behind a screen, I could watch the sequence of expressions cross his face, from oh damn I've hit again ... to I better tell them that it doesn't ... to smile or they'll think something's wrong before saying, "Miss." I wish I could say I was the only one at the table who saw it, but when the players discussed the game at the bar afterwards, sans DM, the fact of it was discussed.
The great observation made by the cleric was, "Well, we knew it was stupid and obviously he was lying, but hey, we're players, right?"
Yes, that's right. That's exactly what I expect players to do.
Nothing has changed. DM's still sadly concoct irrationally tough encounters and then guiltily adjust their die rolls behind screens. The Earth still orbits the Sun.
There was a table of people playing 'D&D Next,' but I didn't get the opportunity to observe. I'm not sure I'm inclined anyway. After a long time of staying away from DM's without gamespaces, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, in a venue without any amenity that dispenses food or drink, I'm quite content to make it another long departure.