Dark Sun, D&D 4th Edition, and Gaming Conservatism

I’m really excited about the upcoming Dark Sun release for 4th Edition Dungeon’s and Dragons (to be henceforth known as D&D4). Back in the days of TSR, in my childhood and early adolescence, I collected the majority of the supplements available for the game, including most of the campaign settings. Dark Sun wasn’t my favorite setting, but it was up there; better than the more traditional settings, certainly. My favorite setting was Planescape, which I’m sure will be the subject of more than one future post, followed closely by Ravenloft; both settings are not even possible anymore, given the changes in traditional cosmology that D&D4 brought. Well, Ravenloft is probably possible, and some version of Planescape could be done, but it certainly wouldn’t be the Planescape I remember. Council of Wyrms, the setting where you got to play as a fucking dragon, was third, and really the coolest thing TSR ever did; it was only that low on the list because it was for the most part a pretty limited setting. Dark Sun probably tied for 4th with Spelljammer. But the important thing is that it was definitely up there.

I’m curious to see how they handle it in D&D4; one of the premises of Dark Sun was that magic was controlled and dangerous, and magic users fell into two camps—despoilers, or whatever they were actually called, and preservers (my Dark Sun boxed set is in turn in another box right now, so I can’t go double check the names). Arcane magic in Dark Sun was drawn from life, and despoilers could boost their magic, but they killed off plantlife and otherwise caused bad shit by sucking the life out of everything around them. Preservers were weaker, but they could promote life with their magic, which in a desolate desert world was kind of important. (If I remember correctly, it was a desolate desert world because of despoilers). Even better, at epic levels, despoilers could actually metamorphose into dragons (though at the time there was only a single dragon, unsurprisingly called The Dragon, in the world, and it was a godlike badass), while preservers could metamorphose into big-ol’ butterfly-angel things; really just didn’t care the same narrative or visceral oomph that turning into a dragon did, but at least they made an effort. It will be interesting to see how they incorporate despoilers and preservers into 4th Ed rules; I hope they don’t just cut it out entirely, though I wouldn’t put it past them. It’s been a long time since I read through those rules, but I feel like it would be tricky to include them in the new powers-based system.

Since I’m on the subject, I want to go on the record about D&D4—I like it. While I appreciate roleplaying as much as anyone, and when I run games I try to tell interesting stories and include a healthy measure of roleplaying, as a player I am really a hack-n-slasher at heart, and combat in 4th Edition is just more fun. I got tired of 3rd Ed and 3.5 several years before 4th Edition came out, because until you’re at least 8th level, combat is a bore. You hit them, they hit you, half the time you miss. Or, if you’re a spellcaster, you cast three spells, and then you’re useless, because there might be more encounters before you can sleep. You don’t get to start doing anything interesting in the majority of classes until mid-levels, when you’ve finally built up enough class features, spells per day, or feats to have some tactical decisions to make. I like D&D4 because you can start fighting tactically immediately, and the variety of powers adds a lot of interest, as opposed to run of the mill basic attacks. I’ve had more fun in first level D&D4 encounters than in most 10th level D&D3 encounters.

However, I cautiously sympathize with people who don’t like 4th Ed. Many of them have legitimate reasons not to like it. Many of the cosmology changes are definitely iffy. There are new gods, new extra-planar landscape, new, stupid races that don’t actually make any sense in their professed “sea of darkness with glittering points of light” premise. If most of the world is a dark, dangerous wilderness and civilization is a tenuous thing, your average human or elven or dwarven peasant worker is not going to see a Dragonborn or a tiefling and say, “Hey, a hero, just like those other guys,” they’re going to say “Oh shit, there’s a giant walking lizard/demon, get the pitchforks.” But I digress. There are also major, fundamental changes to the game’s rules system, and while I like them and think they’re more fun, and I always hated Vancian magic anyway, I can see as how such changes could make it feel like “not D&D” to some people, particularly with the designers professing that some of their inspiration came from MMOs.

However, my sympathy with anyone professing to hate 4th Ed is definitely limited. First, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to game with someone who can give it a genuine shot and honestly claim he or she doesn’t think it’s fun, because I’m pretty sure that means that they and I are looking for totally different things from our D&D games. Second, and more importantly, lots of gamers are inherently conservative; they rebel against new editions of their favorite games simply because they’re new. I’ve known people who bitched and moaned for years about D&D3, even after they’d collected multiple books for it. There are still people on Dumpshock who make it a point to let everyone know how much they hate SR4, even though it’s been around for five or more years now. Similarly, I know people who hate new World of Darkness, even though old World of Darkness was such a shitty ass terrible unbalanced system that I could hardly stand to look at it. Some of this, of course, is replacement rage, where they’re just angry they have to buy new books, but some of it is a reaction to something being new, which is an attitude which really annoys me. I don’t mind well-thought out criticism—no game system is perfect—but instinctive rejection of the new is useless and is liable to cause people to miss out on a lot of great things. It’s also very tiring, since the people who do this also tend to want to tell you about it at great length. And I’ll stop here, before my counter-complaining gets any longer.

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