Background: I played my first Dungeons and Dragons adventure in 1978 with my friend Dennis and his brother and friends. I've played, off and on but mostly on, since then. I have played some other systems along the way, including genres outside of the Fantasy setting, but always returning to the granddaddy of them all at some point.
My SoCal gaming group really enjoyed EarthDawn (ED), a game (at the time) released by FASA Corp. We enjoyed the world, the variety and mix of playable classes and races, and the multiple dice aspect and rerolling of the game system. One other nice aspect was that mages and non-mages both remained effective and useful into higher levels.
At the time, Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) was in second edition, and was still a bit cumbersome to play and learn for new players, had a lot of "splat" books for classes and races to help you min/max your character. Soon, DnD 3.0 and then 3.5 came out, and we switched back to those, as the new rule set clarified and simplified a lot of what our gaming group didn't like about DnD. However, there still were many and frequent discussions over how a certain rule should be used or interpreted, because the editing on the books was never great and they used ambiguous terminology and examples.
Wizards of the Coast released DnD 4th Edition. The aim of this edition was to simplify some rules, alleviate a lot of the detritus that had built up around certain classes, races, and styles of play, and try to minimize the overt dominance of mage classes at higher levels in favor of keeping all classes viable through all levels.
I have now both played and DMed DnD 4e for almost two years. And what I find interesting is just how much of the setting and rules that DnD 4e has taken from ED.
|Point of Light setting?||X||X|
|Spellcasters can cast all the time?||X (matrix)||X (at-wills)|
|All characters powered by magic?||X||X|
|All tests must equal/exceed difficulty number?||X||X|
|Specific rules always override general rules?||X||X|
|Passive "spot" ability?||X(Passive Perception/Insight)||X (Perception)|
|Hero points?||X (Action points)||X (Karma)|
|Multiple dice used?||O (many powers give multiple damage dice)||X (step system)|
|Extreme success in battle?||X (Criticals)||X (Armor defeating)|
|All characters can heal?||X(2nd Wind/healing surges)||X (recovery tests)|
While I wont list them, there are many rules similarities in the two systems now, as well. Both systems make it harder to multi-class, for example, as the Discipline/Class you choose is something of an embodiment to how your character relates to the world through his magic, so it is harder to learn abilities from other Discipline/Classes. DnD 4e has the advantage here, though, as it does allow you to "dip" into another class and get a couple of magical abilities from them, making your character more generally useful to a party at the cost of a little specialization.
One area I'm disappointed 4e didn't copy is the ED standard of having a test to hit a character and then a test to damage the character. By this I mean that in ED you have to roll to see if you land a blow with your weapon, spell, or social interaction first, usually pitted against a character's Dexterity. And then, if you happen to hit, the character's Armor absorbs some of the damage. This system better represents the different decisions players may make in wanting a "light, fast, hardly hit" character versus a "meat shield, tanker" type character. In ED, you can buy high Dexterity and light armor and feats and talents all designed around not being hit at all. However, due to the limited protection light armor provides, if you are hit, nearly all of the damage gets through to you. Or you can buy a high strength so you can handle wearing extremely tough, durable armor. Your dexterity is low due to the weight of the armor, so things hit you more often, but it takes a high roll or an armor-defeating hit in order to get any of that damage past the armor and to the character.
DnD decided to stick with the more generic Armor Class, where AC accounts for both your ability to dodge and withstand damage. It also ties Hit Points more closely into your character's ability to take damage and continue functioning, with no standard for extreme damage or long-term inability due to combat. ED has Wounds as well as Hit Points. Wounds represent extreme or long-term damage that limits a character's ability to do something. The first Wound is "free" but each subsequent Wound gives the character a cumulative -1 to just about everything they do.
Another aspect that I like in both is that they have taken a lot of the rules for roleplaying OUT of the game. Much of the "fluff" has been eliminated or minimized. In this way, you can play a, say, dwarf, any way you want to. You are not locked into the standard DnD concept of greedy dwarves who distrust elves and covet gold and gems. Or bearded dwarf females (ugh!).
While ED has a good, strong back story of events, and gives some elements about the races, the rules do tell you as a player to use those aspects you find fun and ignore the rest, if you choose.
4e also borrowed a concept from ED in magic items. In ED you could get threaded items which grew and became more powerful with your character over time, and minor threaded items and minor magic items were fairly common and available. While that concept did not make it into 4e, it has revamped the way magic weapons are powered so that they can tie into character concepts, they can empower the character with new abilities and/or increase existing abilities, and they are cheaper and easier to acquire and/or transfer the magic to a different weapon, making it easier for players to keep enchantments but use them on weapons that are more "in concept" for their characters.
On many other comparison blogs they discuss how 4e is "more like an MMORPG." This statement I simply don't understand; the concepts that MMORPGs use come directly from DnD and its related games, not the other way around. While they may not have explicitly stated it in previous editions, the concept of having a tank/defender/meat shield up front to take the damage and keep things occupied, a striker/scrapper/blaster to do melee or ranged damage, a leader/support/healer to buff the party, and a controller/crowd control/debuffer to hinder the opponents is the classic "standard" setup for any party in any RPG. I find this amusing as every edition of DnD from the brown paper covered through today has always recommended the party consists of a Fighter (Defender), Rogue (Striker), Cleric (Leader), and Wizard (Controller). And, by their very nature, most classes fit into one of those roles predominantly. And, like other editions, most classes have secondary roles they are good at, too. A Fighter can be a decent Striker, for example, and a Cleric can fit into either Controller or Defender roles with grace.
Both ED and 4e have rules that allow characters to overcome damage fairly easily. This is part of the concept of the characters all being "heroes" and part of the upper 1% of the population that have these magical abilities. In ED, the Recovery Test is limited by the character's Toughness, and may be done after an hour post-combat and after 1 minute of rest and concentration. Whatever you roll is subtracted from your current damage. In 4e, you have a number of Healing Surges you can do per day, based on your class, race, and/or Constitution. You have one special Surge you can do during an encounter, called a Second Wind. Either way, recovery tests and healing surges minimize the need for healing magic and allow the characters to do more in a day instead of the old style of "fight-rest for 8 hours-heal-fight-rest for 8 hours-heal" routine that frequently took up a lot of game time in previous editions of DnD. In either system, I find it is still ridiculously easy to kill characters, overwhelm them, and make them use these precious resources. Healing magic is still needed and much gold is still spent on healing potions.
The one thing I miss the most from ED is the ability to roll multiple dice and the ability to reroll maxed dice. There was always that tinge of "a first level windling could kill a dragon with one blow" lurking in the background that made for some extra excitement while playing. Many of my favorite stories from ED involve lucky or unlucky times when the players or the DM got maxes, allowing for extraordinary results on challenges and tests. Even with all the changes that were made, DnD 4e just isn't designed for that type of randomness, so it was not included.
4e has become a lot like ED in how it is played. It resolves many of the rules issues with previous editions, incorporates some good concepts from other game systems (like ED) to keep people playing and doing heroic things, and allows for more variations to many aspects of a game world where things had become somewhat rote. ED (now provided by Redbrick Limited) continues to be a fun game system that has some core concepts I really enjoy, namely in how it handles armor class/hitting and its use of multiple dice and rerolling maxes. You should play whatever RPG you enjoy most.