D&D Fourth Edition — A good third impression

When D&D 4E was announced and initially released, I check in with some of the discussions about it on the RPGnet d20/D&D forum, hoping to get a feel for the game based on people who’d actually had a chance to read it and play it. Curiously, it was the complaints about the new game that really inspired my interest, as the things that die-hard fans of earlier editions were citing as flaws or problems were things that sounded great to me.
A little later, I found out about the Penny Arcade / PVP podcast series, in which the creators of both comics sat down with Wizards employees to play their way through some adventures using the new rules. This is a great set of podcasts to listen to, as the play group includes an experienced player, someone who played in high school, and brand-new player. You can check out the first podcast in the series here. The guys in the podcast had a lot of fun, and are often hilarious to listen to. Even though the style of game they played is likely not the kind I’d play, it still highlighted the new rules quite well, and garnered even more interest from me.
Yesterday, I was given the 4E combined set, featuring the Player’s Guide, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. I spent some time reading through them yesterday, and was really impressed. Although there are things I love about how the new rules work, that’s not what was most striking.
The 4E books are very, very clearly written and wonderfully organized. The “this is a roleplaying game” introduction is quite good (although I haven’t needed one of these in years), and the little box explaining the history of D&D is excellent. From there, the rules are clearly laid out, with basics first and elaboration later. In the appropriately titled “The Core Mechanic” section, the basics of the d20 system are laid out. Later on, we have clean and smooth explanations on making characters, using powers, and so forth. Throughout the books, the authors do an excellent job of presenting the simple, clean concepts first, then adding the elaborations later.
But I was even more impressed by all the non-rules assistance for play. There’s a substantial section discussing characters and characterization, with helpful suggestions on setting up ideas about what your character wants in life, how he or she would react in different situations, and so forth. In prior editions, lip service has been paid to making a character a character, but in this edition, it gets an entire package of helpful advice. This is very important, since the ability to play an actual character with actual characterization is perhaps one of the unique, market-defining traits of a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. I think the authors of 4E got this in a way that people haven’t in prior editions. After all, if you aren’t playing an individual character, you might as well be playing a computer RPG. This pattern of strong assistance for the non-rules aspect of gaming continues into the Dungeon Master’s Guide, where there’s a wealth of advice on running adventures, pacing story, setting up campaigns, making spot decisions, and the especially practical advice of “how long should I put aside to prepare?”
I am quite impressed. This set of books really is a great introductory package to get even brand-new players started on the game, and on roleplaying in general. I’d recommend it to someone who wants to give tabletop roleplaying try.