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 Dungeons & Dragons:

4th Edition

(Long Time Role-player, first time Half-Orc Fighter)

 Right out of the gate, let's get something established:  I'm not the world's best authority on gaming.  I definitely can't even pretend to be a veteran of Dungeons & Dragons.  Which is sort of WHY this article had to be written.  I've been role-playing for just over a decade now, which means that most old-school table-top gamers think I'm a child, while a lot of online gamers think I'm old as hell.  Until about six months ago, I'd never played a game of D&D.  Many people, including some of you reading this now, think this means I shouldn't talk about it.  The catch is...4th edition just came out.  It's new, it's shiny and comes with a free tote bag if you call now.  The publisher, Wizards of the Coast (henceforth written as WotC because I'm lazy), has launched a new version of the game that most everyone at least knows a bit about, be they nerd or otherwise.  With the new game out, they're trying to attract fresh players from all over the place.  Over the past month, I've seen dozens of advertisements for the game on lots and lots of websites...many of which have very little to do with stabbing orcs in the face with your rapier.  They want new players.  Every new edition of, well, anything pisses of the veterans who enjoyed the old system.  In fact, knowing that those very same veterans have bookshelves filled with now "outdated" role-playing books, it makes sense that some people are upset.  Hell, we all fear change...as well as hate spending money.  So what am I blathering about? 

Despite 4th edition coming out, I haven't been able to find anything even remotely approaching a "So You're New to Dungeons & Dragons" guide.  Maybe I'm looking in the wrong place or maybe I just lost a bet, hence this article.   In truth, I'm writing this article for myself.  The 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragon books are the very first D&D books that I've ever purchased.  No, really...it's true.  (I have snagged a few Monster Manuals for a certain other article, but since I only got them for the pictures, they don't really count.)  I played a preview version once at a friend's and the next thing I knew I was running a game for the first time for Dungeons & Dragons Day 2008...all the time surrounded by old school D&D players confusing matters with stories of how things used to be.  I actually got sucked into D&D thanks to a certain article (click here) that I wrote making fun of it.   I've always been a role-player...but more the kind that enjoys calling a DM (Dungeon Master, guy/girl who runs the game) a Storyteller, and who can't make a character if he doesn't know what their motivation to shoot bad guys in the head is.  Sorry for the rambling...and the lack of funny.  We needed to establish a few things here before we could be derailed.  All you need to know is this:

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is out...but difficult for certain people who don't know the difference between Faerun & The Forgotten Realms.  If you already know what's wrong with that statement, this article most likely isn't for you.

  So what the hell is Dungeons & Dragons?

It's a role-playing game, as well as a tactical miniatures game.  In plain language, this game is half role-playing your characters and half playing a board game.  It's been overtly influenced by the exploding popularity of MMORPG's (or however they're abbreviated these days) like World of Warcraft and, my personal online poison of choice, City of Heroes.  We'll get more into that later, but if you're familiar with online gaming, chances are you could teach some D&D veterans a thing or two.  Realizing I was the only one at the table who new the term "aggro" and "tank" was shocking, considering that half the table had been playing D&D for almost twenty years.  Don't know what aggro is or how to tank?  Don't worry, we'll get into that stuff later. 

For now, let's talk about the setting.

Well, as much as we can.  There are two approaches I've seen by WotC to explain the setting of their game.  Chris Perkins, a guy in D&D Research & Development, had this to say in a recent podcast:

"The D&D world is a very dark place.  Think of it as points of light in the darkness.  There are these places of safety and sanctuary and all of these dark places in between...this is where the brave wander."

The "points of light in a sea of darkness" is a description that appears elsewhere in the books, pointing out that it's up to your character to bring more points of light into that world of darkness.  Sounds...familiar somehow.

Lite-Brite:  The Deadly Game of You Against the Darkness.

The only problem with this vague description of a dark, fantasy world (filled with monsters) is that sometimes they mention things that don't really get explained.  These seem to be common knowledge to veterans, but well, let's try to explain the world using the information we've got as a new player with a handful of 4th edition books.

:deep breath:

In the center of the game, we have the "Real World" (with hobbits), sometimes called the Material Plane.  This is where most of the game is supposed to take place.  If you've seen Lord of the Rings, you probably have a good grasp of the setting.  The only thing is, it gets complicated from there on out.  Underneath the world is this place called the Underdark, which may or may not be an alternate dimension of underground horrors.  It's an "evil" place, filled with, well, a surprisingly high amount of breathable air and horrible monsters that will eat you.  It might be another dimension, mostly because just digging underground won't get you to the Underdark.

  Apparently, there's also an alternate dimension of Fairies and Magic call the Feywild, where extradimensional elves called Eladrin come from.  There's not much said about the Feywild, besides that your Eladrin character might come from the Feywild. I guess it's like that old show "Sliders," and the Eladrin can travel easily between normal world and Fairyland.  The Feywild also has its own version of the Underdark. 

To complicate matters more, there's also the Shadowfell, which is pretty much the Underworld, which also has it's own Underdark.  So the Underworld isn't the Underdark, though the Underdark can be in the Underworld.  Since the Shadowfell is the place where ghosts go before going to heaven or hell, it's hard to call it anything but the Underworld.  Now try to understand that there's another alternate dimension known as the Elemental Chaos, which is a land where the rivers flow with electricity, the sky is made of fire, and, well, yeah.  There's also, under the Elemental Chaos, a place called the Abyss. 

Maybe a visual aid would make this easier?

Oh and there's also the land of the Gods, known as the Astral Sea.  Don't call it heaven, though...there's a section of it called The Nine Hells, which is where Satan & his D&D equivalents dwell.  On top of all these, there's also a place called the "Far Realms" which, despite being far away (by definition) still seems to occasionally show up in the "real" world to mutate people into flesh-eating alien monsters. 

What should scare you is this is all "basic" D&D.  Typical games will also take place in a "Campaign setting" a place with MORE specific geography and potentially different alternate dimensions. 

So in summary:  Real World, Underdark, Feywild, Shadowfell, Elemental Chaos, Astral Sea, Abyss, Nine Hells, Far Realms and....yeah.  Hard to summarize.  I've heard it suggested that D&D is a game of withholding, leaving things purposely vague to make way for another book in the works that will explain all of this.  But it's another book, and not something a new player is going to see.  Maybe the setting isn't important?  We know there are dragons and other monsters, as well as random portals to other dimensions.  Some filled with fairy, alien elves, and candy while others open up to worlds of giant spiders and clouds made of burning acid.  It's all vague, letting you design the game however you want.  I still, as a role-player, would like to know what my character's origin might be, particularly when the book tells me I have a summer home in an alternate plane of existence.  Little things like that are helpful, but as long as you wing it, you'll be just fine.  It's a world of magic and monsters...and there are treasures to be had. 

Let's get into the real reason we like to role-play:

Your Character...this is really how we learn about how thing in 4th edition are going to work.

First, it's time to choose you race.  Instead of White, Black, Hispanic, etc. we have a few more exotic choices.  These range from the bastard children of demons to lizardmen to weird extra-dimensional Elves.  Choosing your race tells you a bit about your background and gives you a few extra powers.  We'll get into mechanics in a bit, but here's the summary:

The Dragonborn.

According to the book, you should play as a Dragonborn if you "want to look like a dragon."  That's not a joke either...it's a quote right out of the Player's Handbook.   The Dragonborn are described as proud and hornorable...and they look like dragons.  They're apparently the last of a fallen empire, a claim that isn't as unique as you'd think (see Tieflings below).  They all breath fire (or acid or lightning or "cold" if you'd prefer) and they're, well, dragon-related.  In a game called Dungeons & Dragons, we should be grateful we didn't get a race called the Dungeonborn.

Dwarves:  Dwarves are, well, dwarves.  They're stocky, slow, and good at being tossed.  These guys apparently came from the Elemental Chaos dimension, but since they look normal and seem to be the epitome of what I know about dwarves, I can't poke fun.  At least female dwarves don't have beards.  Gender ambiguity in Terry Pratchett is funny, less so when the girl next to me looks like a Mini Me version of ZZ Top.

Eladrin:  As much as I joke about the Eladrin being elves from another dimension (which is what they are), there's something classic about a race of elves inherently magical with weird, pupil-less eyes.  Basically, 4th edition separated the two "Elf Stereotypes" into two distinct races.  Eladrin got the Magic, Elves got the shaft.  Well, the shaft of an arrow, but the shaft all the same.

Elves:  Do you like Nature?  Do you like the ability be super-accurate with your Legolas-like archery skill?  Then you might be an elf.  Elves are apparently descendent of Eladrin that got trapped in the real world.  So instead of being magical, they turned into forest rangers.  Makes sense to me.

Half-Elves:  "Mommy had a Legolas fetish, and that's why I was born."  I don't want to think about these too much, as it implies that there should be half-dwarves and half-halflings (quarterlings?) out there as well.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to be the hybrid creature, but mixing humans with other....species gets a bit weird.  And that's what these are.  They're not Races....they're species.  Let's not go into this further or I'll start citing horrible things from the D&D "Book of Erotic Fantasy." And no one wants that. 

Halflings:  Yes, I keep making the Hobbit joke, but who can blame me?  These guys are less Frodo and more a group of midget gypsies traveling the world.  Sort of.  There's a lot of text online about the new Halflings, making sure you know they're nothing like the Hobbit-inspired creature you thought they were.  Not much of that is in the book, but oh well.  I'll just say that they are "lucky" (it's a special ability) and leave it to that.  

Humans:  We rock.   Humans are, by definition, awesome.  Then again, I'm thinking the creators might have been biased, being humans themselves (excluding that guy doing the podcast who is most definitely a dwarf). To quote:  Humans are the best at whatever the hell they try.  So it's not an exact quote.  Looking at the real world I don't know how true that is, but if you don't care too much about your Species (I mean Race), then go Human.  They work with any character class and you get even more powers than usual from your chosen career.

Tieflings:  Tieflings are the "other" survivors of a fallen empire.  Apparently this race came about when humans a long time ago had sex with Demons and started crapping out horned tieflings.  They're an interesting race, being both human and freakish at the same time.  Red skin, horns, and a tail are all common, if not required to be a Tiefling. 

Now, I'm not going to compare 4th edition to older versions of Dungeons & Dragons, but since I found this while writing the other article on Monsters, I feel I should share.  This is what Tieflings used to look like:

And now? 

The Good side:  She has handlebars on her head? 

The Downside:  Look at her head.

I like Tieflings being the demonic creatures that they are...I can also understand why the older players might have an issue with it. 

Certain races aren't around anymore...like Half-Orcs for instance.  That sort of makes sense.  A race of player characters based off the idea that "Mom was potentially raped by Orcs" just doesn't...feel right somehow.  Even with a race or two missing, the selection is...broad.  To be honest, I have a feeling I know why 4th edition is seeing such a diverse group of Player Races to choose from.

Character Classes: 

Or how I learn to stop worrying and love the MMORPG.

In the 1st Player's Handbook, we have 8 character classes to choose from.  These classes can be broken into what D&D Calls "Character Roles".  To be more specific, all classes are more broadly defined as "Controllers, Defenders, Strikers, or Leaders".  If this is sounding familiar, the answer is NO, I will not join your Guild.  This might also explain why 4th Edition is being marketed so heavily in video game circles.  World of Warcraft, and the MMORPG scene in general, (which stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) is so insanely popular and mainstream it would be goofy for them to ignore it.  Hell, D&D inspired things like WOW in the first place, so learning something from fantasy-realm offspring doesn't seem so terrible.  So why would online gamers want to play on paper?  Simple:  Online role-playing is NOT role-playing.  While you can have a fight in-character and have a dramatic chat at the Inn while you wait for your powers to recharge, you're inherently limited by how the game was designed.  You don't have the option to "pretend to be dead so the Ogre attacks the other guy thus allowing me to sneak up behind him," because no one's gone to the trouble to program that into the game. It's like that with most video games.  You can't talk yourself out of a gunfight in Grand Theft Auto and you can't steal your enemy's Pokemon in the night while he's asleep.  Traditional RPG's still have the advantage in this direction.  Oh and don't try that "talk your way out of a gunfight" thing.  It never works out as you'd hope, and the helicopter never shows up in time.  But, I digress.

Defenders in D&D are Paladins & Fighters who also show us exactly how online gaming has influenced 4th edition.  Both are pretty much "hit it with a sword until it dies," right?  Not exactly.  Remember in that story where the hero mooned the bad guys to distract them so his friends wouldn't get shot?  Minus the indecent exposure, that's pretty much what Defenders do.  Both these classes have something called "marking" which means that a "marked" enemy hurts itself when it attacks anyone but the Defender.  This marking, in case you didn't know, is what you do when you "hold the aggro" in an online game.  Just thought you should know the lingo.  Paladins mark their enemies by telling God they've done something terrible while Fighters mark enemies by....talking smack about their mothers or something. Let's keep going. 

Leaders are characters who are only as good as their friends.  Well, that's not exactly true but if you're playing a healer and you have no one else to heal, a bit of the magic is lost.  Clerics and Warlords are the Leaders in 4th edition.  Both work as medics while at the same time being pretty martial themselves.  Think less Florence Nightingale and more crazy war priest from the Crusades.  Sure, they're both good but only one of them will stab the enemy in the face AND kiss your boo-boo away.

Strikers include Rangers, Rogues, and Warlocks.  All three of these classes deal out lots and lots of damage, each in a slightly different manner.  Sure, a guy who sneaks up behind you with a knife has very little in common with someone who's sold their soul so they can shoot unholy fire from their fingertips and burn out your eyes (as pictured to the right, naturally), but mechanically they do the same thing in the game.  All the strikers have a few abilities to help keep them alive, but if they're not bathing in the blood of their enemies, they're just not doing their job right.  There's not too many people whose job requires them to bathe in blood, but therein lies the burden of the Striker.

The only Controller in D&D right now is the Wizard.  Since the game now has everyone's powers working the same way despite your class, there isn't the "oh crap, I've run out of spells" moment that folks seem to talk about when wizards and D&D comes up in conversation.  Wizards focus on slowing down, stopping, or setting fire to entire groups of enemies.  They build magical walls and, while the Warlock is the magical blaster of 4th edition focusing on murder, the Wizard focuses on choosing what enemies don't get a turn this round or which ones need to be bathed in acid.  Those are the kind of on-the-job choices that keep Wizards interested in their line of work.  Hey, you'd like your day job too if it involved that kind of thing.

The mechanics:  Checkers on Crack.

Now, I know that Dungeons & Dragons has benefited for a while from being played on a grid with small miniature versions of the characters & monsters duking it out.  4th edition?  It pretty much needs a grid of some kind.  This can be homemade or store-bought, but you'll need it.  Why?  Because the range of everything in the game is measured in squares.  The Wizard's Thunderwave spell is a Blast 3 spell....how can you tell what the hell that means unless you know where the squares are?  This isn't new, but the way the powers work, the advantage goes to the fighter who can outmaneuver his opponent the best.  It really is a tactical board game.  With Elves.  And sometimes Hobbits.  Hell, a lot of the powers are named after Chess moves, for obvious reasons.  It adds to the flavor of the game and keeps things interesting.

This is both wonderful and a bit limiting.  It's wonderful because it gives you more options than just "I hit it with my sword".  The downside?  WotC sells official Dungeons & Dragons miniatures.  They also sell maps, tile sets, and....some third thing because lists should usually be in threes.  You don't have to get them but once you start using them, it's hard to turn back to just using dice to represent characters.  It wouldn't be so bad, except that they sell the Miniatures in random booster packs, very much the same trick that WotC did to get you to buy so many Magic: The Gathering Cards back when you were in Junior High.

I got into the D&D Minis for a weird reason years ago...I was looking for random miniatures to play test this game I made that had the "Fun Should Be Free" principle in mind.  So I made a game that could use miniatures from any game.  Basically I knew too many people with miniature collections they weren't using because no one played the game anymore.  So, for the sake of fun, I started buying a few random miniatures that came from various games.  Our play test group loved it and we started buy more and more miniatures.  And then I got sucked into Dungeons & Dragons.  :sigh:  Hopefully this is making sense.  The point is that the miniatures look good enough that they significantly add to the game.  Considering how 4th Edition is half a tactical board game... You don't have to collect them. but if you get sucker-punched into the game, you'll be tempted.

The other downside of 4th Edition being so easily miniature-compatible, is that it requires less imagination.  I mean look at the picture above.  The reality in plastic form is so much less epic than me saying "The giant hooded Ogre rises from it's hiding place, towering over the poor farmer.  In fear, both he and his pig wet themselves explosively."  Ok, maybe I don't want to see that in plastic form, but you get my point.  The power of imagination is a huge part of role-playing.  But maybe removing it a bit doesn't hurt.  So many people role-play in videogames now, where the design of the game doesn't exactly facilitate such things, that we can handle this. 

And of course, sometimes things just look better when you see them in 3-D.  Which do you like better?
This (drawn super crappily to emphasize my point):

Or this:

You might disagree with me, but sometimes goofy children's toys make your hobby somewhat sweeter.  Remember you don't have to spend money on "official" D&D minis to play the game.  But they're out there and if you get involved you'll be tempted.  And your wallet may weep.

Of course, mixing your own things with the official minis is always fun.  Particularly around Christmas time, when there's a Nativity Set nearby.

"The Christ Child Demands Obedience!"

And we're done.  Basically I just wanted to rant about 4th Edition from the outsider's perspective and possibly help someone who doesn't know what's going on find out where the fun is.  Don't hate 4th Edition for being like any particular online game out there.  The online games are based off D&D in the first place, so it's only fair that things are turning out the way they are.


If you really want to know the truth, I lost a bet and the penalty was having to out myself as a colossal geek who actually enjoys Dungeons & Dragons.  I hope you're happy now.  Next time we play, I know a certain someone who's going to have a flumph fall on them.


"closet geek?"

Special Thanks to my kidnappers for getting me into the Goblin-Killing Business.  Thomas:  Thanks for being the DM for one of the best games I've ever played in and for crying just a little bit whenever we kill your monsters.  Lutz:  Thanks for having a car.  Kate:  Thanks for teaching me that Girl Rogues can do it from behind too.  Fabian:  Thanks for not role-playing the fact that you're playing a girl.  Fabian 2:  Thanks for not finding out I secretly poisoned you three sessions ago.  Tom:  Thanks for being the only character we can count on for rolling 1's when it would be the funniest.  Marc:  Thanks for enlarging me with a mere touch.  Man, does that sound super duper gay.  Oh well.  Thanks all the same.  Rachel:  Screw you for betting me I wouldn't write a crappy article explaining 4th Edition.   Puppet:  Thank you for being retarded.




Copyright 2008 Jared von Hindman or maybe just Jared Hindman.  It depends.  Any images used that are not Jared's are used via Fair Use review purposes and belong to their respective owners....who are nice people that don't want to sue me.  Most images are obviously from D&D (except for the Lite Brite Picutre), specifically the 4th Edition Deluxe Box Set.  Assume they're all Hasbro's unless I mention otherwise here.  Oh right...and the World of Warcraft logo is Blizzard's.  Crap, stuff came from all over the place today.The images that have the "headinjurytheater.com" watermark on them belong to Jared von Hindman, though if Wizards has amateur hour, let me know.   And again:  Hasbro who owns Wizards of the Coast who owns TSR who owns Dungeons and Dragons:  Please don't hate me.  And by Hate, I mean sue.

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