Strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma. If you don't know what's special about those six virtuous attribute then you never spent the Saturdays of your youth playing Dungeons & Dragons. At its height in the 80s D&D was deemed so subversive that it was banned by some schools and many parents forbade the kids from ever playing it. Despite this, its reliance on player imagination and thick rule books (not to mention math) consigned Dungeons & Dragons to the nerd section of the uncool aisle. By the 90s, the geeks and nerds of the world had moved on to other obsessions, such as Doom and Gillian Anderson, but D&D left a lasting impression. Without D&D for inspiration, the world might never have seen Blizzard's World of Warcraft or the Simpson's Comic Book Guy.
Mapping dungeons and rolling saving throws is not in my future—D&D is a pastime that requires a serious time commitment—but my nostalgia for the 80s and my curiosity as a game designer led me to plunk down $63 to buy the core rule books of the just released 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
On the surface, the 4th Edition is the same as the game that we spent our weekend hours playing in the 80s. Back then it was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, itself a refinement and expansion of the original D&D game rules created in the 70s. Then as now, the game consisted of role playing mighty warriors and wizards, and using dice and complicated rules to determine the outcome of battles with various monstrous creatures. But at the detail level, 4th Edition probably shares more in common with video games such as Ultima and WoW than it does with AD&D.
Now that one of the game's creators, Gary Gygax has passed away, it is probably heresy to say it, but the original game was not very good. The original ideas in the game were brilliant and continue to influence games today: character classes, hit points, armor class, levelling up, experience points, etc. But the actual design of the game—the rules and content—had many weaknesses. For example, a typical game had four players: One played a fighter, one was a cleric, one was a thief (or rogue), and the last was the magic-user (or wizard). But when fighting a monster, only the magic-user had anything interesting to do. For the fighter, thief, and cleric, a turn of combat sounded like this:
Fighter: "I attack the troll!" (rolls dice)
DM: "You miss! OK, next player."
But the magic-user got all the fun:
Magic-User: "OK, let's see, should I use the magic missile spell now or later? You know, maybe I can cast a fireball and hit all the monsters at once...except maybe the room is too small for that. Or maybe I can teleport a giant rock on top of the troll. Or maybe I can cast my invisibility spell on the thief and have him attack... No, I think the magic-missile does better damage...wait, let me look at the Player's Handbook again..."
DM: "We're waiiiiiiting!"
Fighter: "I'm getting some more nachos."
4th Edition has redesigned the rules so that they are clean and consistent and so that they are equally fun for all the character classes. Magic-users (now called "wizards") still have spells, of course, but now fighters get "feats" that allow him (or the occassional her) to make interesting decisions in the game. For example, instead of just attacking, the fighter might try a Sure Strike, which has a +2 chance to hit but only does 1 hit point. Or the fighter might use one of his once-per-day feats such as Brute Strike, which does extra damage. Players of Mortal Combat will feel right at home.
Sid Meier, famous designer of Civilization, defines a game as "a series of meaningful choices." In that light, 4th Edition surpasses the original D&D in that it gives players more interesting choices. Another example is the "healing surge". Once per encounter, the player may restore some of his hit points by taking a healing surge. This is not very realistic—wounds don't heal that quickly—which is why the original game didn't have healing surges. But from a game design perspective, it is wonderful. The player gets an extra choice during combat: should I use up my healing surge or not.
In other ways, the 4th Edition rules are a lot tighter and more algorithmic. For example, combat relies on miniatures placed on a map to determine who can hit whom and how many people are needed to block the dragon from eating the wizard. The Player's Handbook spells out combat as a series of steps: first you subtract hit points if you're taking ongoing damage; next you regain hit points if you are regenerating; next you deal with other effects that occur at the start of your turn, and so on. The actions that you can take on your turn are also well-regulated. You can take a standard action (hit a monster), a move action, and a minor action in one turn.
All this reminds me of the algorithmic steps of Magic the Gathering. The original D&D rules were very loose and the Dungeon Master had wide discretion in deciding whether or not a player succeeded in any given task. D&D had loose rules partly because the game is about experiencing an epic story, not about rules. But partly, the original designers of D&D didn't know how to create tight rules without limiting the player too much or making the game too complicated. The ideas introduced by various computer games and by Magic the Gathering have since inspired D&D and now allow the rules to be more precise without too much complexity. In turn, I expect that the ideas in 4th Edition will inspire other games.
D&D will probably never be as popular as it was during the 80s, but this new edition reminds me of how much influence Dungeons & Dragons has had on modern games. I am looking forward to poring through the 4th Edition rules to get new ideas for Transcendence. And now that Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert have come out of the closet about their D&D experiences, I don't feel like a complete nerd when I think about strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma.
Dungeons & Dragons Official Site: A surprisingly bad site, but still the official source of D&D info.
The Adventurer's Guide to Thievery: A Gamasutra article on how to steal the best ideas from 4th Edition for your own games.
New D&D Rolls a 20 for Playability: Wired's review of 4th Edition.