(or how I’ve learned to stop worrying and learned to love 3.5)
I’ve been playing D&D off and on since 2nd edition. For a kid growing up, THAC0 was an annoying amount of math to make combat fun for someone who wanted to just kill Orcs. I liked 2nd edition’s use of campaigns and game worlds. It was a neat way to spark creativity in a young impressionable player. It turns out Dark Sun was my favorite for its strange and foreign game world. Psionics, a godless land where day to day survival was a challenge, let alone what was hiding in the desert wastes made this campaign setting my favorite one to date.
In college, 3.0 came out and I didn’t have the money or really the interest to invest in books. I managed to buy Neverwinter Nights, and invested a TON of time into the 3.0 game converted into video game form. From an RP perspective, Neverwinter was geared more towards hack-n-slash. It was when the five minute work day really became apparent to me. From playing the campaign to persistent game worlds, you fight a group of monsters and then you have to rest to regenerate your powers. I also noticed myself pumping points into use magic device to make up for lack of character skill to get around in-game obstacles.
It’s at this point when 4e is released and I have time, money, and interest in pen & paper gaming again. I enjoyed the toned down skill system, and in my eyes Wizards focused more on combat rules and left the RP more ambiguous for the DM. I thoroughly enjoyed the system, and its use of At-Will, Daily, Encounter, and Utility (ADEU) form of combat. I liked how casters didn’t run away from the melee players at higher levels. I didn’t like how the use of wands and spells made other classes & skills irrelevant in 3.5. In non-combat encounters, use Diplomacy? Nah, Charm Person. Pick a lock? Knock spell. Jump a ravine? Fly. At the 10th and 20th level, you could pick your paragon and epic tier class features. This, to me, helped separate your typical Rogue, Fighter, or Cleric from what someone else generated.
So how did 4e fail … well its combat system is TOO tight. It was hard to implement homebrew rules or use weapons that didn’t fall into a tradition fantasy setting. The powers typically focused around weapons that were characteristic of each class. To some, the limit of skills meant limiting your role-play ability. I would disagree, but then we start that age old debate of whose opinion is more right? For instance we didn’t even have skills really until the advent of 3rd edition. But people almost vehemently believe that skills are needed to define the player. How did this happen? Also, Save vs. Death. 4e wasn’t lethal. The DM had to make the encounters absurdly hard in order to kill the players.
4e could have been great had they re-tuned the game and released a 4.5. 4e was just missing that little something to make the adventurers and the worlds they inhabited feel truly heroic. Followers, castles or keeps, a way to, within the game mechanics, inspire fear in a classic Tomb of Horrors or White Plume Mountain fashion. I felt there were enough skills to cover almost anything within the players or DM imagination.
Right now, I’m playing a campaign using the Pathfinder system and I am having a good time. I overlook the fact that my ranger is the same every other ranger in the 3.5/Pathfinder system. I ignore the fact that I have to go elbow deep in a skill system to micro-manage what my character is proficient at. I’m trying to embrace the crafting system, when I find it difficult to believe a character has time to be a master smith, master armsman, and full time adventurer. Where does he get the time to become proficient, let alone know which end of the smithy’s hammer is the business end? In the end, it’s the players and the DM that make the game worthwhile.
To bring closure to this rant, I appreciate Paizo’s ability to stick to its guns and create a consistent and concise product. In terms of how to run a game, not much has changed in years. But what they've done is keep with the times and what players want from their system. Digital content, check. Flexible game system, check. Consistency across titles and products, check. I love 4e, but I can’t love how the player base was ignored or abandoned.