I joined a new gaming group on Sunday, for 9 hours of slaughter with a group of blood-drinking, delusional toad-wranglers such as would bring disgrace on the name Dungeons and Dragons were their antics to become commonly known. My PC is a 3rd level human rogue called Shinan, a freelance negotiator for the various thieves’ guilds of the setting, and the other PCs are:

  • Wrenn, a gnome artificer with an alchemical bent, who makes potions out of the blood of other party members and thinks he is sexy
  • Haidulk, a massive human brawler specializing in grappling, whose current claim to fame is that he got a Drake in a headlock and killed it
  • Mardred, a Razorclaw shifter Warden who everyone calls “the Dwarf,” but who seems to think he is human. Currently wielding some kind of massive hammer, he seems to be very good at missing everything in combat until the killing blow needs to land

My own PC is a pretty standard rogue. He is overweight from too many drinking parties (he is a negotiator!) and, being a go-between rather than a fighter, all his combat skills are built around getting behind bigger people. Occasionally his jobs require him to kill the hostage takers when negotiations turn sour, so he’s also a very good backstabber. But largely, he’s a runner and a talker. He also has delusions of grandeur, even though (because?) he was raised in a brothel in the entertainment quarter of the setting.

The setting is the city of Punjar (I think we’re doing Sellswords of Punjar, or one of its sequels). I like Punjar – it has a nice combination of Lankhmar and middle-eastern themed chaos, with lots of skullduggery and a nice hint of the exotic. The introductory text is nicely written and the adventure so far has been interesting and challenging. It’s involved some negotiating, some research, some good old fashioned problem-solving (mainly for traps) and a fat scad of slaughtering. It’s got everything a party of blood-drinking, delusional toad-wranglers would want (including a giant toad to wrangle).

I thought I’d make a few comments about what I perceive to be common criticisms of D&D 4e on the basis of my first session of 4e in about 3 years.

Combat is not challenging: The players talked about having barely dodged a TPK the previous session, when a lucky roll enabled our toad-wrangler to get a drake in a headlock. Two of our party members were reduced to near 0 hit points by a smaller group of attackers – two vine monsters in a hedgerow nearly killed one of the party – and we routinely have to break out all our powers and push our limits to get through the battles. Things have been dire twice, and in fact if the GM had been interested in pushing it I’m pretty sure the first encounter of the day (with four grigs, FFS) would have killed me. Compared to other systems I’d say the WFRP 3 battles I’ve run have been nastier, and the D&D 3e battles in general easier, and no shorter.

Combat takes ages: I haven’t really noticed this. In 9 hours (including, obviously, breaks for coffee and dinner) we got through shopping, introducing my PC, getting given a new adventure, two detailed interactions with PCs to do research, a battle with 4 grigs, a battle with 2 vine monsters, fighting a sword-swallower toad, negotiating a hedge maze, a battle with 5 elemental beasties of some kind, investigating four sarcophagi, and negotiating a dungeon level full of traps. I’d say each battle only took about 30 minutes or so out of all this. Probably this was partly assisted with some digital aids, but I don’t have any digital aids and I did fine. So I think this might be an exaggeration.

Healing Surges make it all trivial: My character has 6 healing surges, each healing 5hps, a total of 30 hps; I have 22hps to my name. In OD&D terms this would be the equivalent of me, a third level rogue (on an average of 10.5 hps) having access to two cure light wounds a day. Given how abundant CLW potions tend to be in the average campaign, I don’t think this is a game changer. The dwarf has 14, so is able to heal 3 times his own hps in damage per day. I guess that’s a bit rich, but for the rest of us the healing surges can easily be seen as a simple alternative to a couple of CLW potions. And, we don’t have a cleric. The healing surges liberate us from the old-fashioned D&D party idea, where someone always had to play a cleric. Incidentally, 22 hps in this game is really not very useful. My backstab does 2d6+2d8+7 damage. I can very easily kill myself, and the dwarf can take me out with a single hit too (his damage is 4d6+7 if he uses an encounter power). This is pretty much equivalent to any other edition of D&D, where a 3rd level fighter rolling max damage can kill a thief of the same level

Skill challenges are balanced at every level: I’m not sure if I understand this properly but I’ve got the impression that some people think all encounters and skill challenges are designed to be balanced so that you always have a 50% chance of success. This is very far from what happened to me on Sunday; so maybe I’m misunderstanding this. But I am confused by the saving throws, which do always seem to be just a 50% chance of success.

It’s all about combat /it’s just a tactical miniatures game: We did lots of non-combat things, including some classic dungeon crawl problem solving and puzzle-solving, some rolemaster/D&D 3e style skill check-based manoeuvring, and some straight-out PC-to-GM negotiation. Nothing seems to be really different about what the game encourages or discourages. I don’t use miniatures in combat when I GM and there are some aspects of this style of play which I don’t think are good, but I don’t think these are unique to D&D 4e: D&D has always included miniatures and battle mats, etc. And I’ve always eschewed them in my own games. I don’t feel particularly constrained by using them in this one.

So overall, although there are some ways in which it doesn’t feel like D&D, it mostly just feels like a slightly exotic form of D&D, with a better-designed character sheet and some smoother combat rules. It was better than my previous experience of 4e, but I’m not yet decided on whether I like the system overall: I’ll wait to play a little longer before I decide that. It is, however, a perfectly decent platform for adventuring, and I’m enjoying it, even if Shinan feels a little discomfort at having to slum it with this pack of degenerates. But in adventuring companions, as opposed to systems, beggars can’t be choosers; and until his ship comes in, Shinan is just going to have to stick around with this bunch of smelly weirdos.