This review needs some background information for you to understand where I'm coming from. My father owned the original D&D in the three simple booklets oringally put out by Gygax and Arneson back in the 70s. I started playing around the time 2nd Edition came out and for all of the 90s ran a game using books from both 1st and 2nd ed. While initially part of the 'horrified' crowd when 3.0 came out, I tried it and never took out the previous books again. It didn't help that if you picked up my player's handbook the wrong way, half the pages would fall out. Being the designated DM for my high school group helped foster the storytelling portions of my mind which led me to write and molded the style of letting the character's motivations drive the plot.
With the announcement of 3.5, I was miffed, but eventually the bulk of the revisions were adopted with a few characters and/or items in existing games getting tweaks by the comittee (aka the gaming group.) Thus when 4th Edition was announced, it was met with little more than a sigh. We were under the mistaken impression that the main impact would be financial. We were sadly mistaken.
Because I've been creating characters and telling stories for close to twenty years by this point, I had my methods. I create characters by building to a concept. I put a personality and style down and then use the rules to create a character who matches that description. This method generates memorable encounters and fun PCs. So the first thing I did when I had 4th Edition rules in my hands was to attempt to create a character to a concept. I decided to make a Rogue. He was a guileless mechanist well suited to scouting for the party. Compared to some of my other concepts this was downright one-dimensional. I went through the book, trying to build the character. I ran into the 'tactical styles' and neither seemed to fit, so I left it blank and skipped ahead. When I found the dramatically atrophied skill section and ran out of available choices before I ran out of points to spend without breaking concept, I got annoyed. So I walked away, there wasn't an active 4th Ed game, so there was no reason to keep going. This was a lot further than some of the other group members got. One read the Magic Missile description and put the book aside as soon as he noted that it now required an attack roll. It has never required an attack roll in any version from 1974 until 2009.
Now it was decided that whenever we were lacking a full group, instead of trying to push forward in a normal game sans a PC or skip the session, we decided to run a 4th Ed game where the PCs could pop in or out without penalty, just to give it an honest try. Upon going over the rules again, I once again grew irked. I couldn't build anything resembling my existing concepts, not even the Seige Engineer, who was the most realistic concept of my existing characters. He was very highly based upon the roman legionaire, and embodied 'crazy prepared'. His problem was the fact that they removed 90% of the skills from 3.0/3.5, meaning any skill heavy character was impossible to convert. So, I dropped the concept phase all together and simply threw a character together to the rules. He had no personality, no backstory and no depth. I named him Odd. (Odd is a Norwegian name, and is a deliberate double meaning here.) Odd was a rogue, and as far as I can tell, he has no left hand - after all he doesn't seem to be allowed to use his other hand at all by the rules, so it might as well not be there.
We started against Goblins. No big surprise for low level PCs. But time after time, the battles took forever, and when we didn't run away, the PCs barely squeaked out a victory. At first I suspected DM unfamiliarity with the rules, but it turns out that this was not the case. The system is just that slow and painful. Also, apparently Odd has a very suboptimal build. My strong stats were Dexterity and Intelligence, dumping Strength and Charisma - a build which fed many a very successful rogue on earlier editions. I can now hear anyone with even basic familiarity with the 4th Ed Rogue groaning. You remember those 'Tactical Styles' I mentioned before? They are based on either Strength of Charisma, and all of the extras on the Rogue's special abilities depend on those stats. Intelligence is useless for a 4th Ed Rogue, despite being the second (or first) most important statistic for a 3rd edition rogue.
Being the Filler game in the rotation, 4th Ed racked up more sessions as we entered a busy period for those members of the group who are in grad school. When it turned out that the Gnome could teleport any time someone killed one of a specific set of enemies, my mind rebelled and promptly shouted "What the fuck?" mind you, I don't often use profanity (almost never really), so the fact that it wasn't a mere "what the *bleep*" should tell you how far off the deep end the mechanics went. Logic does not apply to anything in 4th Ed. Once we reached this plateau, and then saw that the mountain of agony kept going, there was much discussion. We eventually determined that 4th Ed is not D&D, it is an MMO. Role-Playing and character development have no place in this board game. It is more closely related to WoW than D&D. Combat, grinding and numerical build tweaking are it's only elements. In fact, there is more room for character customization and building to concept in WoW than 4th Ed, taking away one of the largest advantages to having a bloody tabletop game in the first place. The designers should have read the 2nd Ed sourcebooks, especially those which hammer in the point that "D&D is cooperative storytelling", aka "A Role-Playing Game". Instead, they made an MMO.
With this realization, we changed the style of play and found a few tactics which, while completely cracked, illogical and nonsensical, were more effective in-game than using anything resembling sense. The 4th Ed sourcebooks are now filed on the shelves with the board games, nowhere near the RPG books. All of our running games have stayed 3.25 (A hybrid of 3.0 and 3.5).
This rates an epic fail from WoTC, and I will only call it 4th Ed, as it is not D&D due to it's complete lack of adaptability to role playing without simply putting the books away and ignoring the fact that there are even rules. We can do that without paying Wizards anything.
Now, one might argue that the changes are mere stylistic differences meant to make the action seem more epic. That has not been my experience thusfar. On an aside, with regards to the 'Minion' subtype of monsters, they do nothing but clutter the battlefield and forces a PC into what my group has termed 'Peon Duty'. This term actually dates from 3.0 when my Sorcerer was by default on Peon Duty, it is when a character must be detatched from the main group to focus on mopping up large numbers of enemies which are of little to no real threat or significance, but which could annoy the people who are dealing with the real focus of the combat. While arguably important, it was more annoying and boring than anything else. From the standpoint of someone on chronic Peon Duty, it has a tendency to feel as though your character is a mere henchman to the rest of the PCs than a full member whenever you get stuck with the task.
As a final analysis, lets compare the difference in role between Odd and my 3.5 Rogue, Kilian. Odd is a tertiary damage dealer behind the Gnome and the Ranger and only then when used in conjunction with the tank. In all other tactical situations, he is dead last in damage output. Kilian is also the tertiary damage dealer - always third of five, retaining this status regardless of tactical siutation. Odd is squishy and tends to go unconscious a lot. Kilian has the strongest defenses of anyone in the party and serves as the off-tank unless the Paladin is missing, in which case he becomes the primary tank. When Odd goes down, he lingers for a long time. So much so that it was listed among the things he does best. When Kilian goes down, he goes down hard - dying in 100% of the times he's been knocked unconscious (one out of one). Odd and Kilian are tied for dead last in spellcasting ability in their respective parties. Odd lacks anything resembling social skills and tends not to interact with NPCs. Kilian is the diplomatic face of the party, smoothing over ruffled feathers and keeping the uncivilized behaviour of his fellow party members from getting them run out of town. Odd has one identity and one quest - a guy trying to return a staff to a temple. Kilian has eight personalities and faces to go with them, which he changes between depending on which alias is least wanted in the town they're about to visist.
Neither one can do much with traps, Kilian can at least get past locks. Odd is highly observant, but Kilian often pulled the 'Sergeant Schultz' aka "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing". Both can lie as easy as breathing, in three languages each no less. In short, Odd is third best in combat (sometimes) and dead last in everything else, making him almost a useless addition to the party - that one character you tend to leave behind in a computer semi-RPG because they're not all that useful. Kilian tends more towards the player's character in the same genre - second best at everything (except spellcasting) but the frontman for the group.
I want to mention here that in terms of distribution of ability scores, Odd and Kilian are almost the same, except Kilian has a lot less wisdom. I tried to play Odd similarly to the way I played Kilian once - he got himself KOed really fast because his stealth and defense were not up to the task and the Goblins didn't believe that he wasn't the guy who just broke out of their camp the day before. So he caught arrows the hard way - with his torso.
If you're looking for a combat centric MMO you can play on a tabletop without computers, then 4th Ed is probably good enough. If you're looking for a well rounded RPG with the flexibility to deal with the imaginations of the players and DM, don't look to this system for inspiration, you'll only be torturing yourself.
-- Robert McCarroll