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4e Forgotten Realms preview released
Wizards of the Coast have released, via their organised play body the RPGA, a preview of some material in the forthcoming Forgotten Realms supplement to 4th edition D&D.

On that promo page is a link to download the preview document, which contains some expurgated rules for creating drow, genasi, and swordmage characters, as well as the rules around a few of the character origin choices.

The first thing is the the fluff writup for drow, and I've already decided the setting book due in September will not be worth any of my scarce gaming dollars. But first, some background.

In 4e WotC has chosen to genericise the cosmology and a bunch of the fantastical elements. They've been selling this significant change to the background of the game by saying it makes adapting it to other settings easier for DMs. Great! I don't mind the changes, and they're going to make it even easier to bring in unique, setting-specific cosmology and stuff. I'm looking forward to how the Forgotten Realms (my first love among D&D settings) will be injected with new vitality in 4e, and how its long history and its place in the universe are going to be added to.

There's the operative word, though: added. So, back to 4e drow in the Realms.
Fey Origin: Your ancestors were native to the Feywild...
The Feywild? Fuck that! The Realms has well-established history for where all elves came from, and it wasn't some vaguely-developed "bits of pure goodness left over from the creation of the world, parallel to the normal world". This is rewriting the stuff that I enjoyed about the setting. What happened to the Elemental Chaos, the Shadowfell, and the Feywild being generic and replaceable for individual settings? The generic cosmology kinda sucks, so not capitalising on its replaceability—it's entire raison d'être according to Wizards—is barmy.

What draws me to a setting is the feel of it, which is conveyed by the hints and details about what the world is like. 4e's generic cosmology does not excite me, and including it in the Realms sourcebook is an anti-feature in a product they're hoping I'll buy. Sure, I could just ignore that stuff and put old Realms cosmology in the blanks, but the situation isn't even that good. Reading the book for inspiration, it's not going to be like suddenly finding these unfortunate blank patches that I need to fill in, but rather like the stuff I love and was expecting to savour suddenly streaked with a big pile of poo.

Even if I didn't feel it would inhibit my GMing glands, there are mechanical problems with running 4e Realms with a modified cosmology. The 4e rules have very tight coupling, with crunchy mechanics directly interfacing with fluff. (Being from the Feywild gives a character the Fey Origin keyword, for example, which is used to determine interactions with spells, items, and stuff that doesn't even exist yet.) Changing the setting cosmology will leave a lot of small inconsistencies that will be a headache to track down and squash, and they will keep cropping up in future 4e materials I might want to use because the rules depend on fluff I wouldn't be using. Doing that in the middle of a game is even worse. Not my idea of GMing fun.

I won't GM in the official 4e Realms, though I might play in such a game. As a player I can enjoy a game without direct contact with the setting materials because I'm instead diving into the fiction that the DM crafts in and around the game. As a GM, though, I'd be constantly stumbling over tiny little unpleasantnesses. That kind of harshes my GMing groove.

Yeah, I'm whining about tiny details that they zOMG CHANGED!one! like a rabid fanboy. But hey, they're needlessly messing with the part of the product that would cause me to buy it; the fact that their avowed intention was to not change those details just adds a layer of stupid over it all. They're offering something that is very much akin to the Realms, but... isn't quite. It's the same reason I didn't really enjoy the 3e Realms books. Sometimes I'll go to the café and want a cheese scone, and I often will not buy a substitute when they don't have cheese scones. I went to satisfy my desire for cheesey, sconey goodness, not just because I wanted something, anything to eat and would buy something despite not wanting it. My desire for Realmsy goodness doesn't inspire me to lay down cash for, say, peanut butter, or a Smart Car, when an acceptable source of Realms isn't available but peanut butter and Smart Cars are. Or piles of poo.

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Personally this strikes me more as a mistake due to copypasta copying and pasting from the PHB Eladrin template. And anyway, I thought Elves in the Realms hailed, originally, from the plane of Faerie? Then the Drow got cast out by the Elven Pantheon and went into the Underdark. Sure, the Fey status is new, but since they've always given me strong Unseelie vibes I don't see the big change there.

Nope. They were all part of an ancient, ancient elven civilisation split into multiple kingdoms. There was some Bad Things that happened politically, and the nasty empire that formed out of one of the wars eventually got cursed by the elven pantheon and exiled underground. Those became drow.

Before that, elves were around since the dawn of time. Even so, it could be argued that those ancient elves originally came over from the Feywild (or whatever) into the Prime Material, but having their connection to the Feywild matter after 24000+ years of no contact with it is... bizarre?

Really, it's not that the drow are fey that's my problem (elves have always been treated differently, hence the rules for a ghoul's touch since OD&D), it's that WotC thinks it's a good idea to retrofit the new cosmology onto the Realms. The Realms already has a rich cosmology, and there's no call to throw that away.

What's next, Planescape set in the Elemental Chaos? That would piss off Planescape fans to a degree that is nigh inconceivable.

Edited at 2008-07-23 11:08 pm (UTC)

Goes to show what little Wikipedia is good for these days, even in the realm of popular culture trivia -- that's where I got the idea they hailed from the plane of Faerie. It does mention this happened twenty-five millenia ago, however, which fits the timeline.

Oh well. The Realms were never exactly my cup of cake to begin with, so I'm just arguing for the sake of arguing campaign trivia. ;>

It does depend on the source, I think. One source suggests that the elves colonised Toril from another Prime Material world via gates. Another hints that the elves may have come from outer space.

Even then, the ambiguity of the origin of the elves so very long ago was a deliberate detail for the DM to make their own. The only thing ever canonised was that the elves were immigrants somehow. Unambiguously canonising the Feywild as their point of origin is bad for that reason too.

But that's just icing on the cake of Do Not Want that is the 4e cosmology. I didn't mind and excused it in the core books because I'd believed the designers that it was to avoid imposing the Great Wheel on settings that it didn't suit, like Eberron in 3e and Dark Sun in 2e; and on DMs who wanted the freedom to customise the cosmology themselves. The Elemental Chaos/Feywild/Shadowfell was billed as a relatively formless default that could be easily replaced. They're just taking the "easy" out of that by writing it into every damn corner of everything they're producing.

The Realms already has a rich cosmology...

Heh. Which one? Is this the third or fourth, now? I forget. They've rewritten the Realms cosmology with every D&D release, so this isn't news.

Now, about the stuff in the preview: it's really good. The drow race is basically just a cut-and-paste from the races in the back of the 4E Monster Manual, no surprises there. The genasis are way more interesting than they were in 2E or 3E, with meaningfully different powers. And the swordmage fixes one of my main complaints about 4E: the lack of a fighter/mage combo, due to the complete failure to address multiclassing. (Although I wish they'd just fixed it by publishing multiclassing rules that worked.)

What's next, Planescape set in the Elemental Chaos?

According to some sources, yes.

I am similarly aghast.

Actually, the cosmology hasn't ever been rewritten, just developed. There's the key word 'add' that makes the difference. Faerûn has always existed in cosmos that contained the Great Wheel, until 4e.

You might be thinking of the pantheon changes. While the cosmology has been stable, there have been changes among the gods and magic in the Realms. That's always been handled by in-game events, though.

I can't see how they can write in the Feywild and Shadowfell just by advancing the FR timeline again. The Feywild could conceivably be the replacement for Arvandor, but that's still making retcon changes because Arvandor doesn't map 1:1 with the Feywild as written. There's nothing like the Shadowfell in FR's history.

Maybe they're going to write up the FR version of the Feywild to match Arvandor, but I really doubt that. If so, it would have made more sense to say "Fey Origin: Your ancestors hail from Arvandor...". Besides, that doesn't fly in FR lore, since Arvandor is the elves' final rest, not their place of origin.

You need to take a closer look at your 3E Forgotten Realms sourcebook. Hint: page 256.

WTF, "Shadow Plane"? Yeah, I never did like the 3e version of FR. At least that was added, rather than rewriting the existing setup. I suppose this "Shadow Plane" will become the new Shadowfell.

Still, the original point stands: they're shoehorning in the "generic" cosmology which was created to be easily adaptable and replaceable with something more setting-specific. It's ass-backwards.

Wait, 3E didn't rewrite the existing setup? When there's suddenly 24 Outer Planes, only two of which (Nine Hells, Abyss) existed before, and the rest of the Great Wheel planes are all absent?

They made a conscious decision to break with the traditional D&D cosmology in 3E FR, for reasons that I've never heard sensibly articulated. Before that, the deities' realms were little kingdoms in the Wheel planes, instead of planes unto themselves.

Woah, I totally missed that detail. Possibly because it's functionally irrelevant... I mean, if I just swap the word "plane" for "domain", it comes right back to the Great Wheel without fuss. The only thing then missing is which domains are planted in which planes. Being a 2e FR DM, I never bothered to look.

The thing that concerns me about 4e FR is that WotC appears to be calling out the changes across the whole setting, so rather than being able to be completely oblivious to a cosmetic, functionally irrelevant change, I'm going to be confronted with it not only in the source book, but by players who've assimilated the change through its incorporation into the PC sections.

It's just... It's not that they're zOMG Terribul Changez, but I don't need another copy of the Realms. I especially don't need a copy that loudly adopts the lameness that is the 4e cosmology. I've already got a perfectly good FR source box and all the rules to run it.

I quite agree; it's really irritating to see the way they fold, spindle & mutilate the setting with each new revision of the rules. 1E -> 2E was pretty well-done, 3E not so much (Hey, where'd all these monks come from all of a sudden?), but 4E looks to be really mashing it up to fit into their "Points of Light" mold.

I think that's the thing that bugs me the most about 4E -- it's oriented around the whole assumption of a "Points of Light" world, which is a good serviceable default, but totally not the only way to play D&D. There's nothing now like the proliferation of interesting settings we had in 2E.

Someone made an interesting point about the difference between WotC D&D and TSR D&D. TSR mostly sold to DMs, seeing them as the main point of contact with their customers, and as the ones who would steadily buy more stuff than just a PHB. Selling to DMs was mostly about fluff, and it was hard stuff to write.

WotC sells primarily to the players, and the game has developed in that direction. (Yes, TSR did this in their waning years, but were incompetent at it. Also, they stayed fluffy.) For me, as a mostly-DM my 18 years of gaming, crunch aimed at PC creation is profoundly uninteresting. Splat books are deeply unsatisfying—I keep looking for the fluff that all the numbers are supposed to be supporting—and relatively easy to produce. PC crunch is a part of the game I have to deal with to manage the PCs in my games, but it's a chore. So, the genasi stuff doesn't really register on my enthusiasm meter.

Come to think, most of my complaints about 4e (and 3e, gods!) could be framed as a lack of enthusiasm for endless crunch.

Edited at 2008-07-24 12:56 am (UTC)

I agree 100%. There's a happy medium between rules and fluff, but WOTC is way, way past it, and has been ever since the takeover.

Nobody really does fluff anymore, now that I think about it. The 3rd-party publishers tend to either sell crunch supplements or small stand-alone games. There just doesn't seem to be room in the market for awesome fluff-only books like Fall of Myth Drannor or Faces of Evil.

I've been reading some stuff around that, though I can only find this one post from Trollsmyth along those lines.

Essentially, it's easy to write a splatbook full of crunch, but it's hard to write atmosphere, modules, and other flavourfully fluffy things. There's plenty of room in the market, but little publisher will. Putting that much energy into developing something so very laser-focused as setting material is seen as a bad business proposition. Conversely, "everyone" (right?) wants more feats, prestige classes, spells, and magic items, and that's a great deal cheaper and quicker to produce. The conservatism of the industry (which is justified really, since it's a niche industry still) makes the lovely chewy fluff very rare.

Tying this into your comment above about there being so few settings for post-2e D&D when there was such a lovely variety for 2e... WotC's view of TSR during the takeover was of a company that had spread itself thin over so many settings that they'd fractured their audience so much that they couldn't get decent enough sales on a given setting product to cover the costs of production. WotC has certainly been averse to anything outside of the core, not producing much in the way of adventures and selling off (then killing off) Dragon and Dungeon. It sounds like the real culprit was abysmal management, but the symptom was poorly-thought out niche settings and rules systems (Alternity? SAGA? Dark•Matter?) and WotC seems to have fixated on that and developed a phobia of fluff.

(I hear Monte Cook's Ptolus is a wonder of fluff [and crunch], but it ain't cheap.)

Yeah, I love Monte Cook and all, but $120 for a single book is pretty ridiculous.

I remember Ryan Dancey writing about how WOTC took over TSR, and that was the general theme -- avoid fluff, don't make settings, don't split your player base. Which is a good way to make money, really, but not a good way to make a great product. If they'd given more support to the fans, in the form of legal rights to use old setting stuff without worrying about being sued, it might have worked out OK. Oh well.

I'm still really keen on playing Planescape, whatever system gets used. Well, not 4e, but that's just for the a) impracticality of conversion and the resultant long-ass wait for you to get the game running, and b) being gun-shy of Wizards' 4e treatment of it.

I still think 2e is the way to go, given that it'll run out-of-the-box. It might be an interesting setting for trying out Paizo's PRPG aka 3.75, though. I still have to give the alpha a good look.

Then again, C&C might be even better for conversion than 3.x. From what I've read of the rules, it seems very easy to stat up new creatures, classes, races, etc. like in old-school games, but has all the modern features of 3.x, like skills, feats, and clean resolution mechanics.

Interesting! I'll give those the once-over when I've got a few moments.

The time-consuming part of converting Planescape is in finding replacements and conversions for the monsters, and 4E is particularly problematic since the new canon rips a bunch of them (yugoloths, erinyes, guardinals, archons, aasimon, modrons, inevitables, real eladrin, and plenty more) right out. Asshats. 4E monsters have more interesting options in combat, but that also means that they're more effort to build and balance.

Maybe I should just think about running it on something seriously rules-lite and narrative; that would be interesting, and I seem to be the only person at our table who enjoys the tactical combat part of the game. The faction powers would need some rewriting to stay interesting, but it would be less work than the other options. Hmm.

I was about to say that C&C is rules-light, and then I reconsidered. I think I'd sooner say it's rules-loose. They're all over, but they're intended to be munged and so they're not highly coupled. It's also intended to be easy to use for OD&D, AD&D, and 3e material (!), so the rules are there to make it quick/painless to write up imported crunch.

For example, one of the simplifications for monsters is that hit dice, to-hit bonus, and saving-throw bonus is all the same number. This is the overview of C&C that got my interest. So a 6 HD troll has 6d8 hp, +6 to hit, and +6 on saves. It sounds really easy to just grab that yugoloth from either any edition of D&D, or just from memory, and slap it together into a useful set of numbers.

I like rules that stay out of the way, but let me do neat things like spontaneous monster stats when I do pay them attention.

Ye gods, I never realized it was quite that bad. It's no wondern D&D never managed to gain a significant foothold over here, where The Dark Eye has had twenty years' time to build up a significant history and well-developed game world (and went through four editions of its own rules in that time). In fact, after the release of their own 4E, they said that upcoming books would not contain any significant amount of crunch at all -- no more Races, Cultures or Profession (which is what PC creation in based on, rather than blanket classes) in any of the upcoming books, only (updated) fluff.

It's certainly this abundance of well-thought-out fluff and in-game history that is integral to PC generation that makes D&D look like a glorified hack'n'slash system.

Wow, yeah. That's definitely a different approach than what's been happening in d20.

I mean, it's a sad state of affairs when me, the keenest keener of roleplaying keening when I was a teenager, who ate up everything I could get my hands on, have no desire to even look at the vast majority of supplements for the game I play that are on store shelves. Haven't for years.

I love Undermountain, a boxed-set megadungeon set in the Realms. I have the original 2e set, and it is full of awesome. I looked at the 3e hardback edition of "Undermountain", but it was just a longer-than-normal adventure. They'd taken an expansive, sprawling labyrinth of a dungeon that could take years of play time to fully enjoy, and turned it into a set of linear encounters by dropping roadblocks and "collapse tunnel, oh nose" into certain corridors to simplify the map. Sad, sad bunny.

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