Fourth Edition: the Phantom Menace of D&D

by Randall Cleveland

A month or two ago I stumbled into an invitation to a weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign some of the other Woot guys play. I had never played a D&D game in my life, but I happily showed up and got my tiny pathetic elf, Sweet Tito, killed in our first encounter. I eventually learned that we were playing an edition of D&D known as B/X, or "Basic Expert." Our DM explained that this was the best of all possible versions for numerous reasons that I pretended to listen to because honestly, I did not care. This was the only version I had ever played, I wasn't looking to take up any new versions, so it didn't really matter to me; flawed or not I enjoyed myself.

Except I kept dying. And dying. And DYING. I started wondering if maybe in later editions they actually let you have more Hit Points than a single Manticore barb could stab out of you, or if newer versions might let you actually TRY to not die in the arms of a Kelpie. I decided to check out some 4th Edition books. Luke, Level 40 Dev Team Warlord and the guy who invited me to the weekly game, saw the books on my desk and decided to intervene by explaining what a travesty 4E is in terms I could understand: Star Wars. More specifically, the worst Star Wars movie ever made...

The similarities are pretty incredible: fans of Phantom Menace (all six of them) will often try to win you over with the bizarre argument that the movie is good not because of things like acting or storytelling, but because it's technically proficient and follows a formula. This is like arguing that poisoning your entire dinner party is a success because you followed the recipe. But I felt like Luke had an interesting point that would be sure to anger a huge percentage of our readers, so I compiled his evidence into a handy list:

THE ARGUMENT
"The whole thing is just a stupid ad for toys!"

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
No matter how ancillary the scene, characters, or both, there was a LEGO version of it sold. Are you dying to reenact some of Jake Lloyd's least-memorable scenes? Then pick yourself up a LEGO Star Wars "Watto's Junk Yard "play set! 

Star Wars Lego Death Star
The poor guy doesn't even SEE that other kid with the LEGO Millenium Falcon swooping in.
 

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
If you're the type of DM or player who prefers to use miniatures, get ready for some smaller-in-scope campaigns. Thanks to the "innovative" and "not-at-all-a-screwjob-on-our-customers" strategy of packing miniatures randomly you're going to need about 10 boxes to get the four skeletons you need for that dungeon crawl. Oh, the big final battle calls for NINE skeletons? Start saving now…

THE ARGUMENT
"It actually takes EFFORT to enjoy it."

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars geeks use this as a weird point of intellectualist pride: "See, if you took the time to actually LEARN that these films are a modern-day sendup of old Buck Rogers serials, you'd realize they're corny and stilted on purpose!" Hey you know what? If old Buck Rogers serials were any good you wouldn't have to send them up because someone would still be making them. And no, you're not convincing me that your mega-million dollar, focus-group-driven popcorn flick is only fully accessible when viewed through the cipher of old serials from the '50s.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Hey it's time to make a character! Gone are the boring old days of "Thief, Mage, Elf, Warrior, Dwarf, Halfling, or Cleric." Now you can be a Human-Elf Hybrid Warlock God Fragment Pact Breaker. Good luck keeping track of all those stats and bonuses, but at least you can use a computer to simplify things while you roll up your character's stats! Oh, unless of course you don't use Microsoft Silverlight. 

Dungeons and Dragons Nerds 2010 Festival of the Arts June 06, 201010
"I don't care HOW high your Charisma modifier is. Get away from me."


THE ARGUMENT

"Lots of everything, but nothing cool."

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
A council of Jedi, the beginnings of a massive clone army, millions of disposable robots and Gungans. No Han Solo.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
55 Player Classes, 3,000 feats, 7,400 powers, 8,800 magic items. No Erol Otus.

THE ARGUMENT
"They completely destroyed the narrative established in the previous incarnations!"

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Midi-chlorians.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
Healing surges.

 

Dungeons and Dragons
"My Elf is actually the guy from Die Hard, so he's healed up from that battle axe wound now."


THE ARGUMENT

"Why is there so much awkward dialogue?"

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Uh, have you SEEN the movie?

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
Have fun attempting to use your useless History skill in every single Skill Challenge.

THE ARGUMENT
"The character design is questionable at best."

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Yoda limps and winces around with his cane, except when he decides not to and flips out like a maniacal lightsaber-wielding chunk of flubber.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
There's a 58-page forum thread on Wizards.com about whether Dragonborn females have breasts.

Arjhana: Dragonborn Rogue and Chance: Tiefling Warlord
"Your adventurer's ample bosom heaves as she-" "JUST LET ME ROLL!"


THE ARGUMENT
"The baddies are complete pushovers."

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Whoa, check out this awesome bad-ass with the double-ended red light sabe- Oh, he's dead.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
Powergamer Ranger characters can one-shot Orcus. 

Darth Maul Defends
"Hopelessly outmatched yet again!"

 THE ARGUMENT
"There's a myopic genius factor."

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
George Lucas makes sure every pixel is in the right spot for a visual spectacular...but no one even cares when Qui-Gon Jinn dies.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
Mike Mearls gets the math right and creates a smooth-running, well-balanced game...just like Monopoly.

THE ARGUMENT
"Then there's the lame follow-up to consider."

THE EVIDENCE

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Remember how Count Dooku was the main antagonist in Attack of the Clones? Except you had no idea who he was or what he was doing or why you should care about any of it? Obviously you missed the crappy animated series on Cartoon Network that sort of tried to answer these questions. That's normal, right? Every time you see a movie you have to watch hours of TV programming beforehand to get the BASIC PLOT OF THE ENTIRE MOVIE?

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
Hey, check out that new Gamma World game! Looks pretty cool, right? Can't wait to buy endless booster packs just to get some basic character options. That's normal, right? Every time you play a game you have to go spend hundreds of dollars on ancillary crap just to get the BASIC COMPONENTS NEEDED TO PLAY THE GAME?!

Think we've got some pretty salient points? Of course you don't! Tell us why we're complete morons for failing to see the beauty of whichever Nerd-Marketing-Machine YOU favor in the comments below!
 

Photos (top to bottom):

Star Wars Lego Death Star by Flickr user Flying Cloud
Dungeons and Dragons Nerds 2010 Festival of the Arts June 06, 2010 by Flickr user Steven Depolo
Dungeons and Dragons by Flickr user Will Merydith 
Arjhana: Dragonborn Rogue and Chance: Tiefling Warlord by Flickr user Michael A. Harrison
Darth Maul Defends by Flickr user Sam Howzit
Used under a Creative Commons license