D&D 4E - First Playthrough Impressions

I was lucky enough to pick up a free copy (actually, THREE copies) of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure while attending a conference last week, so our first play session used the pre-created characters provided in the adventure, and we went through the first encounter session last night.  We had three players, so we were slightly undermanned (the encounter is really designed for five players), but managed to make it through relatively unscathed.  We had the Dragonborn Paladin, the Halfling Rogue, and the Dwarf Fighter in the party, and the first battle was an interesting one to say the least.

A few impressions before we started playing, between first cracking open the books and starting the adventure:

  • The entire ruleset has been revised to support miniatures natively, almost exclusively.  There are no more references to feet or other distances - everything is termed in "squares".  While conceptually there's little different, it really does seem like more of a tabletop game (a la Warhammer 40k) in concept than a true fantasy RPG.
  • It's obvious that they've leveraged a lot of experience from CCGs into the D&D 4E rules.  Even weapons are considered "at-will" powers, and it's just another thing that detracts conceptually from the "true" RPG experience that many people might be expecting.
As we started playing through, a few additional things became somewhat clear:

  • The game is VERY combat-oriented now.  The focus is very strongly on offensive capabilities for most classes, and the ability to heal yourself during combat without using items or potions makes it very much a "munchkin" game.  Granted, these are the first adventures published, and as such it's not surprising that they're action-oriented.  Perhaps as additional rulebooks are published and more adventures become available (and at higher levels), we'll be able to see more variety.
  • I'm wondering about some of the at-will abilities.  Specifically, some of the Fighter and Paladin at-will abilities pose the question of why anyone would ever use a standard attack.  For example: Reaping Strike, a Fighter at-will ability, gives the standard attack bonus and the standard damage if hit, but on a miss still does damage equal to the character's STR bonus.  There's no reason to ever not use this power...and you'll always do at least 3 points of damage.  Seriously?  Guaranteed damage every round??  That just doesn't seem right at all.  At least the Paladin abilities mostly require the targets be "marked"...but still, seems a little overpowered for 1st level.
  • The adventure itself, or at least the initial encounter, was pretty well-balanced for our smaller-than designed group.  I think if we'd had a fourth or fifth player, that might not have been the case.  There was danger, there was damage on both sides, and overall it was an exciting experience.  There was a little getting used to some of the new rules, new abilities, and such, but that's to be expected.  Overall, it was pretty fun, a few minor nit-picks, but nothing that ruined the experience for us.