My love of MMOs definitely sprang out of my love of paper-and-pencil table-top roleplaying games. With that thin justification, I'm going to devote this entire post to my thoughts on Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition.
Despite the fact that RPG mechanics (online and offline) are a bit of an obsession with me, I didn't buy the 4th edition books when they came out. If you have moved to a new town where you haven't yet met any role-players, 36$ is a lot to spend just to grok how a system works...even if it is the newest iteration of the most popular PnP franchise. Last week Borders helpfully sent me a coupon for 40% anything in their store. That was enough of a discount to get me to at last check it out.
I won't write a detailed review. However I can say with confidence that I don't like the new system. In no particular order:
1. It is not remotely realistic. It's not as if D&D was ever one of the more "realistic" RP systems available. But 4th edition is simply way over the top. It's as if the same sensibilities that are needed for CRP or Board Game design were applied to a PnP RPG. For example, characters can regain health points a set number of times per day, regardless of class . . . or whether they even know first aid. Got stabbed in the face with a sword? No problem, think nice thoughts for five minutes and it will heal right up.
Great if your point of reference is CRPGs where being able to regen health outside of combat is standard. But completely utterly stupid if you are trying to simulate a world that is a believable fantasy infused iteration of our world.
2. It's not Dungeons and Dragons. The game is so distant from previous iterations of D&D, both in terms of both mechanics and tone/ setting, that they would have been much more honest to call it a new game.
3. It would be nearly impossible to play without miniatures. The bulk of abilities that you gain in the game reference very specific positional situations or zones of space that have no meaning if you aren't playing with miniatures on a grid based map. I guess you could argue that this takes the game back to it's roots, since grid based miniatures combat is where DnD started in the 70s. However, in my mind the reliance on maps, miniatures, and a very structured turn based combat system distances the game from the one thing that I think PnP RPGs offer that no CRPG ever could: the opportunity to be part of an engaging emergent narrative.
PnP RPGs at their best are closer to improv theater than a board game. Everyone has a personality and goals, and the fun of the game is seeing how those elements play out and interact in the situations created by the GM. The mechanics are there to help you resolve events. The mechanics enable and enhance the narrative, they do not constrain the narrative. A system that forces you to whip out miniatures and move around on a board.... is a board game first, and a RPG second.
I'm sure you could role-play with D&D 4th edition. Just as folks role-play in WoW and EQ. However, much as in an MMO, the mechanics that the game offers neither prevent nor empower that goal. D&D 4th is a board game with MMO sensibilities thinly disguised a PnP RPG.