Note: I wrote half of this right after reading the PHB and playing my first LFR game, and I've adding to it ever since. See the update at the bottom for the biggest changes in my opinion. Also, some of this is stuff I've already posted in threads here.
Also Note: This post has been moved here from my other blog.
Those of you who don't like D&D have no reason to read this, and those of you who do like D&D are probably already tired of hearing other people's opinions on this controversial edition of the game. But everyone deserves a chance to throw out their opinion, so I might as well.
I'm pretty sure I've approached it with more of an open mind than most people. Since I haven't played a lot of any version, I have less stake in this - the changes just don't mean as much to me. D&D players tend to get attached to certain rulesets, and are highly resistant to change. Each time D&D gets a new overhaul, I see the same panic that I see whenever Microsoft comes out with a new version of Windows. But in both cases, the new version eventually spreads until everyone gets used to it, the last few naysayers finally settling in just in time for them to announce the next version.
I do like that they attempted to simplify things. For an outsider, that's the biggest barrier to the hobby - the daunting mountain of rulebooks. Heck, I had a hard enough time learning Monopoly, and I still don't really understand Clue.
The most significant change is the new "powers" (and I hate that term being used in D&D). Overall, I don't care for the concept.
Before, playing a different class made the whole game seem like a different game. The core three - fighter, wizard, and rogue - had entirely different rules and stategies. A fighter didn't do much more than stay in front and swing his sword. A rogue took a bit more thinking, and wizards were the most strategic of all. And that was the beauty of the game! That's what made the game appealing to so many different players. If one of your guests wants to play Yahtzee, and the other wants to play Scrabble, you have to take turns. But with D&D, you get Yahtzee and Scrabble and even Hungry Hungry Hippos in a group together, working together, complementing each other's skills, and all having fun despite the fact that they didn't all want to play the same thing. No, not despite the fact... because of it.
So that's my biggest gripe (so far) with 4e. The new powers make all the classes feel too much like each other. A fighter using a daily attack power doesn't play much different than a Wizard using a daily touch attack spell. Take out the flavor text, and you're pretty much just saying "I deal 1d6+3 damage to the orc in the square next to me." Other class differences - AC, strength, etc - are just stats, but it's the strategy that's supposed to define a class. Instead of the checkers champions playing fighters, and the chess champions playing wizards, we all have to be chess champions.
I've always thought of fighter as a good class for a beginner, or someone who isn't into strategy, both of which describe me. But now, I don't know how easily I'm going to learn this game. I thought this version was supposed to be simpler. In 3.x, I already had trouble with the concepts of "full round actions" vs "move actions", but now I also have to deal with whether my new ability is once a day, once an encounter, or once a round. And don't get me started on Action Points and Healing Surges.
I like the selection of races presented in PHB1. Dragonborn are way cooler than Half-Orcs, but probably appeal to the same players. And the Eladrin are a lot more interesting than Gnomes. The class selection, however, is a bit more problematic... I like Bards, darn it! And now I have to wait until the "Player's Handbook 2", just to see if I still like them.
I don't like the skills system. It's a personal choice, but I prefer being able to put points into a skill every level, than to be able to just get a 5 point bonus one time. With the old system, I could spread skill points around and be a "jack-of-all-trades" type of character, or I could really excel at a couple of skills to go along with my character's obsessions. With 4e it's more pass/fail. Everyone adds 1/2 their level to every skill, so even characters who would never think of lying gradually get better at Bluff over time. That said, I do like the way the skills are represented. They're a bit more generic now, so instead of having to put points into listen, search and spot, now you can just train in "Perception".
I'm more on the fence about alignment. It's now more of a scale than a grid: LG/G/N/E/CE. Meh. Personally, I'd rather either have the full grid, or have the even simpler scale of just Good/Neutral/Evil. Or even eliminate alignment completely. It's not a particularly useful game mechanic, and some people think it does more harm than good. At least the classes themselves have fewer alignment restrictions this time around.
I don't like healing surges, but not for the same reasons as most people. Some people have complained that healing surges give a character too much healing ability, but those people don't really understand the system. Healing surges are basically a way of giving you a maximum number of times a day you can be healed. Some complainers are confusing healing surges with the Second Wind ability, which allows someone to spend a healing surge once per battle. However, seeing as how it's a once-per encounter ability that everyone has, and the number of HP healed is 1/4 your total HP, then all the DM needs to do is plan encounters with this in mind - just assume that all the PCs have 25% more hit points than they really do. And yes, you can freely spend surges while resting between battles, but you only have so many per day, so it's not always a good idea.
So while other people complain that the healing surges give everyone unlimited healing, my beef is that the surges are too restrictive. Almost every way you can heal, spends a surge. Once you're out of surges, you can't be healed any more that day. In 3.5, you could theoretically pack 100 healing potions in your bag of holding, and drink them all day long. In 4e, a 1st level fighter with 15 CON can only be healed 11 times a day. That may seem like a lot, but each surge only heals 25% of his hit points, so he may have to use two or three at a time. For example, our theoretical fighter would have 30 HP, and heal 7 HP per surge. He should be able to get through the day's first couple of battles pretty easily, but what if the DM puts the party through more than that in a day? Once he's out of surges, even healing potions don't work.
A lot of people are comparing 4e to World of Warcraft. I felt that too when I first started reading the Player's Handbook, but that went away when I actually played the game. On a logical level I can still see the similarities, but the feel is totally different. Actually playing the game feels NOTHING like WoW. So my potential inflammatory statment would be thus: If someone says it feels like WoW, then they're lying about having played it. They came to that conclusion after reading the PHB, but they haven't actually tried the game. And putting down the system without trying it first is absolutely shameful. So feel free to make all the WoW comparisons you want, but don't even try to tell me that it FEELS like WoW. Don't. I will immediately categorize you as either a liar or a stubborn grognard, which will immediately cheapen the value of anything further you could possibly have to say.
However, it does feel like a board game. Some people don't see it, especially people used to playing wargames. But then, I would also classify wargames as a sub-category of board game, so the comparison still works. The two sessions I've played so far felt like chess matches with a bit of roleplay here and there. Of course, these were both LFR games, which tend to be combat-heavy and RP-lite due to time constraints. But even the most roleplay-centric campaign will probably have combat in it somewhere, and the combat feels very chess-like to me.
Overall, I think the biggest problem I have with 4e is that it's 4e. If it had been introduced as a spin-off, it would be a pretty neat game. Just as the Star Wars prequels might have gotten better press if they'd been spin-off movies like the "Ewok Adventure" or the "Droids" cartoon. With 4e's simplicity, they could have marketed it for younger players, and called it "D&D Adventures." With 4e's powers system, they could have marketed it towards comic book geeks and called it "D&D Heroes". With it's board game like battles, they could have marketed it towards the wargame crowd and called it "D&D Tactics". Call me a grognard, but for me, 3.5 will always be what I consider "D&D". The editions before it were just practice, and the editions after it are just spin-offs.
All that said, I really have enjoyed the sessions I've played so far. Since I wrote the above, I've gotten to play it a few more times, and in a few more ways. I've played it RAW in LFR games, where it's mostly combat and feels the most like a board game. I've played under a more roleplay-centric DM, using no minis, less combat, and some homebrew elements. And I've even DMed a game myself. Every game has been a blast.
Also, I've started using WOTC's official Character Builder, which makes character creation a breeze. Not only is it a time saver, but I can use content from books I don't own, and it makes figuring out the math a lot easier. It has its flaws (the price, for example), but overall it makes character creation a more enjoyable experience.
The PHB2 comes out in a week. I can't wait to play around with the new races and classes.
Bottom line: I still consider 3.5 the iconic D&D. I still think of 4e as a spin-off, or at least "D&D Lite". But that doesn't keep it from being a fun game, worthy of many campaigns.