Looking Back at D&D 4e

So, now with D&D 5e coming out within a matter of weeks, and with the Basic Edition already here, it seemed appropriate to look back on my favorite incarnation of the hack & slash staple: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.

Long, Long Ago, in a Neighborhood Far, Far Away…

To start off, a little background. My brothers and I started with either a 3e or 2e Player’s Handbook. I don’t recall which it was (I was 10, and had LEGOs on the brain as well), but in short order we had a small collection of both 2e and 3e books and supplements courtesy of our local Half-Price Books. It was fun to read, and after a few months of mostly just reading it for fun, I decided to try and make a campaign.

I drew up maps, crafted buildings, monsters, and treasure parcels, and managed to connive my two younger brothers into playing.

It went horribly, to be brief. I finally gave up in frustration after 5 minutes of a player arguing with and insulting a genie until it ended in a rocks-fall-everyone-dies result with some lightning bolts. Most of this was a combination of my immaturity as a DM, and my brother’s general immaturity as well, but it was the last time I tried playing D&D for quite some time. Instead I began playing the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf books, and from there making my own crude RPG cobbled together from the character creation system of the FF books and a selection of the Lone Wolf items. It was an ugly game, and used a random dungeon generation system that frequently resulted in a TPK as it spawned a half-dozen dragons in the next room, and we had a blast playing it. We had one or two additional aborted attempts at playing 3e, and notably had a successful one-shot run using the boxed adventure while on a Boy Scout campout (One day I’ll be sure to post the custom RPG rules I made for those later campouts and my experiences with those as well)

Fastforward to college, and I finally got a chance to play 3.5 again, this time as a midlevel cleric in an existing campaign. Due to scheduling insanity it was the only one I played, but was memorable to me as I used a pair of spells to grant myself an iron skin, become fifteen feet tall, and promptly become stuck in the middle of an alleyway and unable to turn to face and attack the weird robotic cats that were attacking the party.

A few months later, after meeting my future wife, I was invited to join their games of 4e, and for the first time I encountered the new edition.

A Beautiful Friendship is Born

Right off the bat, I was impressed with the character classes and race options in the main book. The different races felt unique, their racial abilities helped them feel like a bit more of a choice instead of simply picking based on stat bonuses alone, and the class powers, while odd at first, were a very nice change. I had grown annoyed with how players would consistently break my games and preparation over their knees with spell exploits and powergaming twink characters, so being able to easily see how everyone was on about the same level in terms of power and ability was refreshing.

However, the biggest part for me as a DM was the DMG, and specifically the monster stat blocks. I hated DMing 3.5 because of how much of a nightmare running monsters was, an exponentially moreso if they were spellcasters. To see a monsters as detailed and obscenely complicated as an adult dragon pared down to a single clearly-readable page of abilities felt like a godsend. On top of this, the DMG had some very interesting bits on how to be a successful DM; I was confident in my DMing abilities from my time running games for my brothers and my Boy Scout troop, but I could tell that having read that book would have saved me hours of headaches with my games I had run.

I was also enthralled with the Character Builder from the D&D Insider, as it was able to take an otherwise nightmarish process into something that took 30-45 minutes tops, and that was only if you wanted to comb through the Feats and Equipment options. Contrast this with making a 3.5 character, where it normally took an entire afternoon to make half of a party. The D&D Insider was a really nice concept, and while I still think it was worth subscribing to for the Character Builder, Adventure Tool Monster Builder, and Compendium, it makes me wish they had realized the other plans for 4e, such as integrated online gaming and the remaining array of the Adventure Tools.

The mechanics were beautifully tight as well. In 3.5, oftentimes an entire combat would grind to a halt as someone futilely tried looking up Grappling or the damage for a Prismatic Spray, whereas in 4e the combat might slow as someone strategized and coordinated their actions. Shift, slide, push, pull, and the array of blasts, bursts, and walls were finally clearly defined and easy to visualize. Attacks of Opportunity went from being a nebulous occasional extra attack to a clearly visible area-denial tool, and monsters were free to act aggressively and logically; No more attacking the ineffectual Fighter despite the Ranger and Sorcerer pouring arrows and spells into it’s hide, as now the Fighter actually could easily and competently tie up enemies and form a humanoid shield.

Unique spells from 3.5e, such as Knock, Augrey, Raise Dead, and others were still intact in the form of Rituals, which accomplished both the task of keeping them from being able to break combat encounters or negate other player’s abilities and also made them more accessible to other characters. Now casting Mordekain’s Mansion could be accomplished with a single feat and forking over the gold for the ritual, compared to before where such a task might require multiclassing for several levels and often critically weakening your character as a result.

Like Night and Day

One of the major complaints that has come up with D&D 4e has been the dramatic departure of the game from the previous editions. 2e tidied up the rules from 1e (And removed devils/demons because of pearl-clutching), and 3e simply continued the trend, with one of the biggest changes being the long-overdue murder and burial of THAC0; I have never seen a game where THAC0 felt natural outside of the Baldur’s Gate computer games, and even then it was unintuitive as hell that a high number was bad and negative numbers were good.

Reading through the fantastic Wizards Presents Races and Classes/Monsters and Places books, it’s clear that 4e was redesigned from almost the ground up, keeping a scattered handful of elements from previous editions (d20 based combat, the six cardinal attributes, feats), and either paring everything else to the the bone or cutting it out entirely. One particular complaint was the shattering of the Planes system, and replacing it with the Astral Sea and the dominions players can visit; I personally loved this, as it made it easier to set up as a DM, didn’t require prerequisite knowledge of the setting before the shattering and canon revamp, and made each setting richer.

The books talk at length about how they removed unnecessary mirrored objects in the game; that just because you had a race of fire archons didn’t mean that you had to have a race of water archons if they didn’t feel natural and fit in the universe in a way other than just providing a counterbalance. Plus, removing the mirrored planes (Plane of Vacuum? Plane of Sand?) and the bloated set of astral regions in the Great Wheel meant each setting could have so much more depth. Instead of having two regions with only enough interesting material for half a campaign each, you now had one incredibly rich region with plothooks, monsters, and encounters galore.

Another huge victim of change was the Forgotten Realms. While I loved the games set in that universe (Particularly the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate as well as Neverwinter Nights), the setting always felt somewhat bland to me, and reading more about them I never felt comfortable in running a game in that setting because of both the immense volumes of novels already set in the setting that I would be afraid of trampling on, as well as the feeling that any setting-specific NPC introduced tended to massively overshadow the players in power and ability. The new setting change for 4e, while still not my preferred setting, has broken open a lot of the setting, and as a result it feels much more welcoming than before the new edition’s version.

The Pink Elephant

Another main complaint is the powers and grid for 4e making it into a tabletop wargame or into a MMORPG-styled game. I see this as complete hogwash, and in fact both aspects improve the game miles beyond what any edition before or since (so far) has done. The removal of the grid I believe is only in writing for 5e, and will likely be added back for a huge number of games (Along with the joys of re-translating all distances into squares yet again), and the shift from power cards back to vancian spells has resulted in the return of both the quadratic wizard as well as the five-minute workday.

The grid was a huge, huge addition. 3.5 used a grid, but claimed it didn’t, but then used terminology and an absurdly long and complicated movement and combat section to detail how movement worked both with and without a grid. Making the grid mandatory helped remove these ridiculous repetitions, and there is still a blurb mentioning how multiplying all square ranges by 5 feet gives you a gridless option without issue. One of these days, I think I’m going to run a combat scenario on a wargame board with inches instead of squares. Probably even more likely now that my pledge for the Pop-Up Miniature Terrain is in production.

Some contend that it encourages metagaming from players, but I would challenge them that those same players would metagame in 3.5, or probably even very rules-lite games like Simple D6 or Precedence. I personally like it because it makes it far more clear what is where and where players, enemies, and hazards are in relation to one-another. For example, proximity-based traps would have been absurdly objective and difficult to determine if they triggered in a gridless system, but in 4e you can just see exactly where the player moves.

For the power cards, the primary two complaints seem to stem from either annoyance that a martial class is “limited” in how often they can use a technique, and mourning the loss of the huge spell lists spellcasters had access to. The former is a bit illogical, but I’ve never found it to be immersion-breaking myself, and have heard various explanations ranging from “The extra exertion makes it unfeasible to use repeatedly” to “The enemy will have seen the attack already, so repeated use of the technique would be easily parried or countered.” Again, it’s not immersion-breaking for me to begin with, but these explanations help patch over the small cracks in the plausibility for me personally.

The loss of massive spellcaster lists is something I applaud with glee and gusto. The shift to the power cards and rituals solved two problems at once with a single elegant stroke: Quadratic Wizards, and the Five Minute Workday.

Quadratic Wizards is the problem that D&D and some other games have, where wizards and spellcasters begin the game squishy and inferior to martial classes, but after a certain point their abilities scale to the point that the martial classes become unneeded in the party. Worse, in 3.5 their utility spells overlapped with other character classes’ roles, like the Rogue with the Knock spell or the Fighter for a Druid’s Animal Companion. This meant that eventually the spellcasters would be the only remaining valuable members of a party, and everyone else would be dead weight. The consistent power level of 4e’s power cards helped make sure that a wizard’s Fireball wouldn’t be better than any possible attack the Fighter could muster. Moving spells like Knock into the realm of Rituals helped make sure that while a party could function without a Rogue and open locked doors with the ritual, having a rogue allowed you to open those doors faster and in combat situations, in addition to the damage the striker Rogue could now bring to the table as well.

The other main thing that the power cards helped kill off was the Five Minute Workday. Due to vancian spellcasting requiring an extended rest in order to recharge spells, a common tactic was for a spellcaster to blow all of their spells and powers in short order, and then have the entire party help wait and guard them while they rested and regained the spells. Rinse and repeat until you cleared the dungeon, often moving room-by-room and taking in-game months to clear modest dungeons.

The change to the At-Will/Encounter/Daily ability structure meant that a long rest only would recover the Daily, as everything else would either recharge immediately (At-Will) or shortly following the fight (Encounter). Wasting the party’s time based solely so you could regain one or two powers suddenly became much less attractive of an option, and on top of that the entire party was usually as equally drained as they now had Daily abilities to expend. I found myself enjoying playing spellcaster characters more, as they not only had an easier-to-digest list of options, but I didn’t have to worry about being the star player of the first fight and dead weight for the remaining ones. Instead, I had options I could use every fight, different ones, and resulted in me having a great deal of fun with an arrogant, charismatic Sorcerer in Athas instead of a frustrating and limiting headache.

Finally, one argument that tends to crop up is that 4e has too little in the way of non-combat choices, and that everything revolves around fighting. I’ll be the first to say it doesn’t have anywhere near as rich of a set of social and noncombat options as it does combat ones, but by the same token, neither has any previous edition of D&D. 1e and 2e were heavily geared for dungeon crawling, and had little or no rules regarding social interactions. 3.X introduced more skills related to conversations and social engagements, but even then the rules didn’t really extend beyond those skills and while there were several skills, they had a great deal of superfluous overlap. Like most of the rest of the 3e skill list, 4e pared down the options to the essentials (Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, and Insight) that were needed for social situations. I do think that they could have done more with noncombat options in 4e (And one of the fan supplements I’ll talk about later, Ultramodern 4, does exactly that), but what they have is enough for me to comfortably get by. Plus, powers can almost always be used in innovative or interesting ways if your DM agrees to it, so I think the cutting of swaths of odd or extraneous skills (Animal Handling and Use Rope spring to mind) is a win-win in my mind.

Till We Meet Again

That’s it for this installment, but I’ve got two more planned, to speak on the Books and content/setting of 4e, and the Legacy and future of 4e. Let me know if you have any other points you’d like me to address as well!

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