It seems Hamlet had a less vexing decision than the one that seemingly faces many DMs of Dungeons and Dragons. Namely, do I switch to the new fourth edition of the game, or stick with the version I’m playing?

I think it’s fair many factors will go into your thinking. Here’s what I’m weighing, right now.

Cost

The biggie. At $104.95 msrp for the three core rulebooks, this is the most expensive version (with the exception of collectible editions) of D&D ever to hit shelves. While you’re at it, throw in the cost of a new DM screen ($9.95), a new set of Dungeon tiles ($9.95), and the new minis starter set ($19.99). Those are the basics, and it comes to $144.84.

And unlike D&D 3.x, there will not be a free version available. The new standard reference document will not be a reprinting of the rules but with references to Wizards of the Coast Product Identity deleted. The 4E SRD will simply reference page numbers and section headers in the core rule books. 

Now, a player could choose to subscribe to the Dungeons and Dragons Interactive instead of getting the rule books. The least costly entry will be $9.99 for a 12-month subscription.

So is $104.95 too much to pay for a new game?

Continuity

In an ongoing campaign, does 4E allow a DM to make an easy conversion from a previous edition?

It’s hard to know until we’ve actually seen 4E, but the answer is apparently no. Some of the designers have said it will be difficult, though not impossible, to convert 3.5 characters into 4E ones. But it seems unlikely any such conversion primer will be made available. It will be up to the ingenuity of the DM and her players to make any conversions.

The fact that D&D’s core setting, the Forgotten Realms, will be undergoing drastic changes to accommodate the implicit story/roleplaying themes of the new rules is probably the best indicator that converting ongoing campaigns will be difficult, at best. If the Realms — clearly a fairly standard medieval fantasy setting — needs an overhaul to fit with the new rules, chances are your campaign will need big adjustments too.

Of course, if you wish to start from scratch, this isn’t a factor.

Rules mastery

Change is hard, and for many folks, mastering the rules of any roleplaying game is hard enough. Some folks just don’t want to be bothered with a new rules set if the one they’re currently playing works well enough for them, and this is true whether you’re playing 3.5, 2nd or 1st edition or the Basic/Expert game. If you’re having fun playing with the old rules, what’s the incentive to change?

The downside, though, is that is becomes more difficult to find players for older versions of the game. New players, by and large, want to play the version of the game that’s on the shelves, the one that’s readily available, the cost notwithstanding. 

And if you go to conventions to play or belong to an organized play group like the RPGA, chances are that 4E games are likely to be your only option. (Although, Paizo Publishing is developing a 3.5 organized play organization and many find Kenzer Company’s Hackmaster a good 1st edition substitute).

What the group wants

It’s also possible, as a DM, that the choice could be made for you. While in many groups, it’s the DM who makes the rules, or at least, brings the version of the game to the table that’s going  to be played; others give the players a voice in deciding the choice of game. If put to a vote, a majority of the players may decide which version to play, especially if they are faced with the difficulties of switching in mid-campaign.

The troubling thing about either manner of decision making is the event of a split vote. What if the majority votes not to switch, say for reasons of cost? Are they left behind because they can’t afford a new set of the rules? What if the minority votes to change? Do they leave the group to explore the new game on their own?

Digital appeal

A new twist to this release is the game’s digital aspect. And the feature of the subscription service that may well be the most appealing is virtual gaming table. Basically, players separated by distance could still come together and play the tabletop version of D&D online, using virtual characters in a virtual dungeon and an online rules reference to facilitate play. Some groups, especially those scattered across the country — or even the globe — by careers and life choices might consider the subscription option a useful service. The question is whether these groups will embrace a new edition, considering a new rules set a fair exchange for this useful digital playground.

Let buyer beware

Like any consumer choice, the best recommendation is to try it out and see if it works for you. Wizards of the Coast is making an effort to run demos of the game at stores and hobby shops, as well as at many local conventions. So there is plenty of opportunities to sit down and experience the game under the new rules before making a commitment.

So unless you absolutely have to possess the latest thing, I’d recommend sampling 4E before pulling out that pocketbook. DMs should make the decision based on what’s best for their style of gamemastery, their campaign and their players. It’s your table, after all, so make the call based on what’s best for you.

What do you think?

There’s certainly no shortage of opinion about the merits of Fourth Edition D&D. So don’t be shy. Chime in. I’d love to know what you’re thinking, and if switching to the new edition is right for you.