I recently picked up a copy of the D&D Player’s Strategy Guide from a local used bookstore. I wouldn’t have bought it normally, but it was relatively cheap and I had some leftover store credit that I’d been hanging on to for the better part of a year.
Unsurprisingly, some people have balked at the very idea of a “strategy guide” for an RPG. I had figured I wouldn’t need it much myself because I have so much experience with the game already. I was right–two years of playing a game will do that–but there’s an awful lot of stuff in the book I wish someone had spelled out for me from the get-go. 4E is a sufficiently complex system that it has a distinct learning curve, and this is a book that can help smooth that out for new players by explaining all kinds of stuff that the rulebooks either leave out (and that most RPG rulebooks would leave out) or only mention in passing. It’s common sense to focus fire and eliminate individual enemies as quickly as possible, but the Strategy Guide goes to the trouble of illustrating how big of a difference it can make with diagrams and everything.
The book covers a whole range of topics, including character building, party composition, tactics, role-playing, and some of the social stuff (including a section titled simply “Don’t Be A Jerk”). It’s all grounded in a very solid understanding of how the game works and what it can do, so that players can skip over some of the trial and error (emphasis on the “error” part) that we went through in the first year or so of playing 4E. If we’d had a better idea how to play defenders, or just how much it would cost us not to have a leader in the party, we might’ve done things very differently, and altogether better.
The thing about D&D in particular is that while it draws on various kinds of fantasy literature, it was always its own thing. In some ways this was a limitation of the designers’ understanding of this new “role-playing game” insanity they’d devised, and in other ways it was likely deliberate. Certainly when fans asked questions about why the game wouldn’t allow for a given element from Lord of the Rings or some other beloved fantasy title, Gygax’s usual answer was that it was a game first and foremost. While D&D started off culling ideas from fiction, it gradually became more and more about itself, I think in part because that’s all that its rules could really effectively provide.
I think that explains why works of fiction based off of D&D are at their best when they reflect what goes on at a typical gaming table. Typical D&D novels come off as stilted, and struggle to find the happy medium between slavish adherence to what the rules can do and getting into stuff the game inherently can’t do justice. That’s where the new D&D comics from IDW and even stuff like The Gamers really shine. The fun of D&D is less in Aragorn reclaiming the throne of Gondor, and more in the silly bickering and strange accidents that happen along the way (which makes movie Gimli the most D&D-like character in the whole of Middle Earth).
What I like most about the Player’s Strategy Guide is that it’s unabashedly situated in the same realm as D&D actual play rather than wishful thinking about such. It has lots of pragmatic advice about how to get what you really want out of the game, both from a social perspective and in terms of working the rules and building characters, and it’s written in a friendly tone, with cute little cartoons that lighten the mood and call to mind the ones in the AD&D1e Dungeon Master’s Guide.
That’s a tactical thing so basic you can pick it up from the original 8-bit Final Fantasy.
Dragon Magazine once published stats for Conan. Very few of his ability scores were below 20. You know that guy in the books you love so much that inspired you to play this game? Your guy will never, ever be as bad-ass as him.