Rather than blogging about books I've read, I feel it is important to instead essay about what I consider to be a big shake-up in the D&D world: the release of 4th Edition D&D.
In this essay, I'm going to start by stating a few assumptions, as well as a brief history of my association with D&D.
First, I am going to assume that we are looking at only the Players Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide (where appropriate). All other support material is not going to be considered. This is the most fair and balanced way to approach any such comparison (and comparisons are natural: after all 4e must live up to the legacy of previous editions). Secondly, I will primarily be arguing, in terms of content, with this assumption in place.
As for my association with D&D, I've played (at least briefly) every edition, from the Red Boxed (Basic) Dungeons & Dragons of the early '80s (with the awesome Elmore cover art), up through 1e AD&D, 2e AD&D, 3e D&D, 3.5e D&D, and finally 4e D&D. Thus, there is a lot (and I mean a lot of legacy) for any edition to live up to.
When 4e was announced, I viewed it with trepidation, in the same way I viewed the change from 2e to 3e. What, exactly, would they do? How would it be handled? The transition from 1e to 2e AD&D was in my mind an improvement: the system assumptions were not changed, and the rules were cleaned up and added to with the better additions from 1e. Thus, transitioning from a 1e campaign to a 2e campaign was almost seamless. Adventures from 1e could almost be used unmodified (monster stat blocks would need to be tweaked, but that's about it), characters required only minor updating, and there were more options for character generation. Although there were a few omissions that would have been problematic (no assasins for example), some of these omissions were added back in at a later time. Additionally, frankly, some omissions (like the aformentioned assasin) were probably for the best. Despite this, the Forgotten Realms setting felt it neccessary to introduce a "fantasy disaster" in order to explain the changes, just as Greyhawk had a module dedicated to detailing the changes, but both were probably unneccessary, and in the case of FR caused more anguish than it smoothed. How would this transition be handled?
While, when 3e came out, the changes were far, far more radical, the watchword here was to create a ruleset that could integrate and convert a 2e campaign (with admittedly more work than a 1e to 2e campaign) and make it play. This was done by introducing far more options and "builds" for characters. Even 2e characters built under Skills and Powers could be for the most part converted (at least in my examination) thanks to the more options available for 3e. In my group, while I cannot speak of others, I found converting my mid-level thief from 2e to 3e painless, and essentially filling out the character sheet, picking appropriate feats (based on what he could do before) and appropriate ranks in skills.
Now comes along 4e and it was a much greater challenge, to the point were I found it impossible. You will always run into situations where magic items do not convert over (such as from the 2e to 3e campaign: my Short Sword of Backstabbing did not convert, so I converted it over to a normal +2 shortsword that added an extra die of damage in sneak attacks: simple). Do this in 4e and what sort of magic item is it? Does it give a daily power? Encounter? Similarly, a lot of other more mundane magic items did not convert over. Though relatively unimportant, the Spoon of Murlynd (which help define the character as being...mundane...) had no conversion support. Although I could use as-is, this isn't true of a number of other magical items. For example, 4e has a listing of 13 Wonderous (magical) items, whereas the 3.5e DMG has three hundred Wondrous Items in 3 categories (from minor to major). While some might say one does not need such a level of variety, I ask how often you enjoy eating pizza, burgers, and ham sandwiches? Just with what is in the core books, 3e has more choices than 4e.
4e radically changes the game mechanics of character advancement. No longer do each class advance in its own way: all classes advance the same, but through the aquisition of powers. These are further divided up into at-will (use as many times as you want: always limited to 2 different ones), Encounter (once per an encounter), and Daily (usable once per day). There are also utility powers as well, but these with a cursory review appear to be appliciable only in combat. Non-combat spells are handled by Rituals, which are open to anyone that can get the appropriate feats. Thus a 5th level character, no matter what the type is, has the exact same number/type of powers. Thus all the classes "feel" the same, differentiated minorly by hit points, and what cool description the power has. In other words, all the classes are mechanically the same...even fighters can aquire rituals (or non-combat spells). In many ways this feels like World of Warcraft's ability trees: you level and get a new ability. Even in there, though, for spellcasters you at least get to cast whatever spells you know within the context of the game in watever combination or frequency you desire: no artificial "this spell affects the monster once a combat."
Although really a subtext of the above, I think its appropriate now to discuss magic. Magic is either integrated into powers (for combat spells) or Rituals. For powers, the result of this (and to make them in-balance with all other classes) is to strip them of any depth and make them a simple, one paragraph effect lacking flavor. Of course some will say this simplification helps speed gameplay, and make it less unwieldy. I of course say that it takes away options, and strips away flavor.
In the end, in terms of magic, I can understand the complaints about the legacy magic system used up to 3.5e, called the "Vancian" magic system (based on the literature of Jack Vance). It too is an artificial constraint, done for game balance. However, a non-Vancian spellcaster had already been introduced to 3e in the form of a sorcerer, giving players and DMs an alternative. So what sort of magic system does 4e use? And what happens to sorcerers? I haven't read the FR campaign setting, so I cannot comment on how they handle it, but they re-introduce another "fantasy disaster" solution, which was lame in the 2e transition, just as it is lame in the 4e transistion. Now, the magic system of 4e becomes a "magic emulator," neither Vancian or "mana" based like the Sorcerer, and abstracted away from what I consider flavorful. Rituals partially make up for that, but since they are a seperate game mechanic and interruptable by combat, no longer can players use clever adaptation of non-combat spells to achieve unique in-combat effects. A level of finesse is lost.
The skill system (which in my opinion was one of the best features of 3e) has a superficial resemblance to the old 3e system (open ended, roll D20 and add your skill bonus). Gone however are customizable skill point allocation. Instead, everyone gets 1/2 level plus ability modifiers for all skills. To be especially good in a skill, you can be "trained" in a limited number of skills, which nets you a +5 bonus to that skill. Of course there are feats as well that can alter this mix, giving more bonuses or more "trained" skills. While this makes skill selection infinitely easier, again it elimiates a certain level of customizability to skills. You can differentiate some skills, but less so than under the previous edition. Furthermore, a number of skills have been eliminated, and others rolled together. I have less problem with skill consolidation than I have with eliminating skills. For example, craft skills have been eliminated. A character I had made to be a master smith is no longer, unless by DM fiat. Therefore, if I want to have my character make a master sword of exceeding beauty and value, I no longer have control over that aspect of my character; the DM does now, and it is up to DM fiat to decide whether my character can do that, rather than a pure numbers game. Additionally, this also means that any character of sufficient level will be better in most skills than a commoner who is a professional. I suppose that is alleviated by the lack of profession skills, but nonetheless if feels a little of Mary Sue-ism.
Furthermore, characters are now divided into "roles" they play in the game: controllers (control the flow of battle through firepower), leaders (support), strikers (offensive, mobile, high damage characters), and defenders (protect the rest of the party from close assault, i.e. "tanks"). While this merely codifies a phenomenon that has occured since D&D's inception (perhaps not with these exact words, but the concepts are the same), I still feel resentful that for example, as a fighter I am limited to "tanking" (to take the World of Warcraft parallel further, fighters can "mark" a target, imposing penalties to that target if they choose to attack something other than the fighter. When I was playing a 4e fighter, I called it "getting aggro," the parallel was so similar) and can't bust out of that. What if I want to make a ranged specialist fighter? 4e's answer is to just make a ranger. This doesn't sit well with me, since it forces my character concept to adhere to the rules, not the other way around. Net, less freedom when creating characters. For some this is fine; for me, I don't want to be limited to a specific character role, but want the tools to be able to break out of those roles if I so choose, 4e doesn't give me those tools in the core books.
There has also been a shake up in starting races. The standard races of the previous edition (Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-elf, Halfling, Gnome, Half-orc) has been eliminated. We get some of the old "core" races (Human, elf, dwarf, halfling), but now have in addition Tieflings and Dragonborn. Although not a problem per se, however, the problem arises in that it is core. For many it might not matter at all; for long term campaigns it can cause some headaches for the DM. Now he has a choice to either "ban" the extra core races, allow them and alter the campaign (via the dreaded ret-conn), or just start a new campaign. For long term players in the campaign, there might not be any issue with "banning," but what about new players recruited to the game?
The last item I want to touch upon is multiclassing. In 3e muticlassing was a breeze. Just add a level of the appropriate class, add the appropriate abilites, and you're off. This flexibility further allowed one to make the characters they want. The fact that not all choices were optimal are not a detriment to the system, but a challenge in the character. For example, one of the hardest classes to play are Fighter/Wizards (or Fighter/magic-users for the old timers). Unable to wear armor efficiently nor cast spells as well as straight wizards, the charm came from exploiting the class abilites in such a way to make a unique character. It was definitely not the most optimized character, but definitely a challenging one. In 4e, multi-classing is boiled down to a feat that allows you to do something outside of your character class. By itself, this would be a cool feat to backport to 3e, for characters that want a specific ability (for flavor or to support a character concept), but for a full blown multiclassing ability, it pales compared to what you could do in 3e. Can you build Elric, for example, in 4e? I don't think you could even approach his abilities with the multiclassing abilities in 4e.
In the end you take away from the game what you put into it. Sure, it is possible to have a good time playing the game: I played in a several month long campaign (as a fighter) with the gaming group, and had a good time. But just because we had fun playing doesn't mean I have to like the rules. In the end, I played a fighter (besides the fact we had to fill a role so right off the bat I felt less freedom in playing what I want based on how the rules push roles) as a "make it or break it" test. I never have been a huge fan of fighters, so if 4e can make them fun, then maybe it might be a winner. No such luck, and in fact I was bored playing my character. To be fair 3e doesn't alleviate this that much, but at least there if I want to "break the mold" I could do that with the inherent flexibility of the rules. I don't think I'll be playing in any official D&D campaigns again until perhaps 5e comes out in a few years. Even then I might hesitate since, if I really like the rules, 6e may completely invalidate them because Hasbro/WotC isn't selling enough books. At this rate, I'd rather play Pathfinder or GURPS.