I had the opportunity this weekend to play in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign using the newer 4th edition rules. Now, I've played a few hours' worth of 2nd edition, about a month of 3rd edition, and an unspeakable amount of version 3.5, which I know and love. Considering that all news and discussion about 3.5 came to an immediate end the day 4th edition was released (all the 3.5 book literally disappeared forever from the shelves of my local Borders that same day), I figured I would eventually have to play with the new rules to see what all the hubub was about.
Although I didn't play long enough to get a complete grasp of all the differences, I've at least played enough to say with great certainty that 4th edition is not, in fact, 3.5. Don't worry; there's plenty more insight where that came from.
So, this is for anyone who still hasn't tried out 4e, or who's never played 3.5, or who has no idea what the heck I'm talking about at all (in which case you should first check out a vintage post describing and demystifying Dungeons & Dragons, but you still might be a little lost here; sorry). Here's my take on 3.5 vs. 4e:
From what I can tell, Wizards of the Coast took the 3.5 rules and streamlined them by driving over them with a steamroller for 4e. Everything that was once complex has been simplified, and anything that was potentially unfair has been massively overhauled or removed altogether. There seems to be an emphasis in 4e on a more balanced and player-friendly experience that also requires less effort and rules memorization to enjoy. To borrow the sentiments of someone else, D&D 4e is to the roleplaying community what the Nintendo Wii is to the video game community.
D&D characters are highly customizable, and one could spend hours building the perfect gnome wizard or halfling ninja or dwarf shadowdancer and still have just as much fun as if he or she were actually playing the game--I can certainly vouch for this. While there are definite limitations on what 3.5 characters can do and be, there are enough options so that any two generic elven rangers (for example) could have almost nothing in common by the time they reach level 20; 4e seems to have taken a great deal of oomph out of the character creation process.
For starters, there are fewer character alignments to choose from. In 3.5, your character's behavior is goverened by his tendency toward good or evil and his tendency toward chaos or order. 4e simplifies this to just five categories that act more as guidelines: Good, Lawful Good, Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Unaligned. Somehow, "Batman" is still not an alignment in this edition. I'm sure there are all sorts of subtleties about 4e alignments, but right now I'm looking at them as having fewer options, so there.
Furthermore, all the customizable aspects--special attacks, feats, and magical weapons and armor--are severely limited in how they can be used in 4e. Additional rulebooks may open up more possibilities, but in the basic Player's Handbook, I lost cound of how many feats required you to be of a certain race or worship a specific deity, and how many magical effects could only be applied to a handful of specific weapons or armors. Maybe it's because I was only a level 5 fighter, but I just didn't feel as though there were many different ways I could go with my character.
I liked most of the playable races, though; the demonic-heritaged tieflings are cool (and much easier to create than the ones in 3.5), the magical and elegant eladrin are interesting but not so much my style, and I ended up playing a goliath from the Player's Handbook 2, which is a pretty good choice for a sturdy bruiser. Gnomes were demoted from playable characters to monsters, but found their way into the PHB2 for the sake of me and the four other people in the world who love gnomes.
There's a lot to say about the variations in game mechanics, so I'll try to keep things concise here and point out some of the biggest highlights.
4e appears to be far more forgiving to players, allowing them to roll saving throws more often to negate unpleasant effects such as blindness and poison, and eliminating any live-or-die dice rolls where a single botched roll means instant death.
Actually, as far as dice are concerned, there's much less rolling involved in 4e: you gain the same amount of hit points each time you level up, and all your saving throws have been transformed into a different kind of armor class where the enemy rolls to see whether or not they penetrated your Fortitude, Reflex, or Will defense.
Spells and attacks function a bit differently as well: Instead of attacking with a regular weapon most of the time and occasionally unleashing a fireball or using a special attack such as cleaving from one enemy into the next, you use your special attacks most of the time and resort to just a regular weapon attack when nothing else you can do will work.
There's also an emphasis on special powers that can only be used once per day or once per battle, so much so that it's difficult to find any abilities beyond the basic ones that are constantly active or usable all the time.
On the one hand, this has the potential to make encounters more dynamic and prevents spellcasters from becoming worthless walking tissue paper once their spells are depleted; now, they've always got something to fall back on.
The constant need for a healer and/or healing potions from 3.5 has also been addressed; each character now has "healing surges" that can be used inbetween battles to recover hit points, so your cleric can now spend her time doing something more productive, like anything other than healing you all the time.
At first I was pretty impressed with the new main sourcebook: everything seems to be located a little more logically than some things are in 3.5 (for one thing, the complete rules for fighting with one weapon in each hand are located in pieces scattered throughout the entire manual), there are a few organized and extremely helpful tables that cleared up all sorts of confusion, and the pictures are very, very pretty.
Unfortunately, I ran into two critical problems when I needed to look things up on the fly during the game session: first, the index apparently doesn't even hint at where to find such important things as status effects and what happens when you drop below 0 HP (and the handy glossary of terms is completely absent); second, many of the explanations were rather vague--by simplifying some of the explanations to avoid player confusion, they introduced more questions for people who, for example, actually care about whether or not you can attack a foe who has immobilized you and is choking you to death.
Ultimately, the things that I like about 4th edition are mostly the ones that fix problems I have with 3.5: having a healer in the party is no longer a necessity; a character can more easily use all the skills he's supposedly proficient in, even with lousy ability scores; multiple options are given for the way that certain scores and modifiers are calculated so that no ability score is universally important; and spellcasters can't run out of ammo. Still, despite my heavy monetary investment in 3.5 materials, I don't see myself ever converting to 4e.
3.5 has its flaws, but many of them can be modified and house-ruled out, such as what Pathfinder is doing. I love the customizability and mechanical complexity that 3.5 offers, and 4e is simply too streamlined and, dare I say it, player-friendly for my tastes. From what I've seen, 3.5 rewards the players who are creative, experienced, and perhaps a little bit lucky, while 4e rewards everyone equally so as not to create an uneven playing experience across the group.
Basically, 3.5 is for capitalists, and 4e is for communists. There, I've said it.
Alright, alright, that's not really how it is. At least, I haven't played 4e enough to know for sure. Wait--no; I mean, that's not really how it is. Some people will like one version better than the other, and some people still swear by 2nd edition. It's all up to personal preference, and I don't mind as long as we can still geek out about D&D together. But I'm still playing 3.5, thanks.
[Images from www.wizards.com.]