Looking back at D&D 4e, Part 3

Sorry for the delay in finishing this section up; I’ve started a new job, and while exciting and engaging, it has siphoned away an unexpected great deal of my free time.

This is the final post covering the legacy (Thus far) of D&D 4th Edition, as covered in my two previous posts on 4e in general and the books released for 4e. Finishing with this, and I’ll hopefully be able to release more posts with more free games and reviews in the near future.

The Powers System

The big core new mechanic 4e brought to the table was the powers system, as I’ve mentioned before. 3e built on the previous generations of D&D with the d20 system, and 4e polished that to a chrome sheen with the powers system. I’ve mentioned before my issues with what it looks like 5e has shaped up to be, but ignoring the shoehorning of bad 3e mechanics into it, a lot of the issues come from trying to adapt parts of 4e but not the entirety of the system.

4e is incredibly tightly woven, with mechanics that rely both on each other as well as upon a meta-structure of power given a player’s level. It’s fairly easy to crib an attack for a gold dragon statue for a Level 4 encounter by finding a Level 4-encounter gold dragon and using that; In previous editions, you had to rely on vague and nebulous “CR” systems and hope that you didn’t kill all your players by giving them a far too difficult challenge.

However, the flip side of this is that lots of mechanics for 4e are reliant on other mechanics. For example, 5e has tried to export healing surge “Second Winds” for Fighters, but without the underlying understanding of limited Healing Surges per day. This was implemented in 4e basically to put a hard-and-fast limit on actual hitpoints you had and could regain each day (Temporary hitpoints were also hardcoded to expire at the end of an encounter, making them at once incredibly useful but dangerous to rely on as a crutch or replacement for regular healing). I will personally eat my hat if problems don’t start arising with Fighters becoming laughably unkillable over the course of an in-game day because they can Second Wind freely after every fight (Iirc, it’s essentially an Encounter power).

On top of that, they have a lot of mechanics to supplement non-spellcasters that, while nice, do a lot of the same job Powers did. That was another beautiful thing about the Powers system, was that it helped make sure everyone operated the same way mathematically, so you didn’t have to worry about massive power disparities between players. I’ll go into in the Essentials section below where caution/playtesting should have been exercised, but for the most part 4e Powers are a great system to help keep gameplay dynamic, engaging, and fast.

The tradeoff is that it’s generally a packaged deal, in that you can’t really pick and choose what mechanics you’ll use without threatening the underlying game balance, and I think this connectivity and structure scared away a lot of people who were used to the general flexibility and forgiving nature of the d20 system. d20 was certainly compatible with everything under the sun, even if the balance almost always left a great deal to be desired.

Come One, Come All

To be perfectly transparent, I’m not incredibly familiar with all of the various books and supplements written by third parties for 4e’s rule system, although I am aware that it pales in comparison to the amount of material released for 2e, 3e, and Pathfinder. I believe a lot of this has to do with WotC/Hasbro feeling burned by Paizo’s…”generous”… use of the d20 SRD license, but while I understand their reasons for using the very restricted license instead, I feel like it really strangled what could have been a very lucrative (In terms of players and interest) avenue.

I’ve actually only used three non-WotC D&D 4e supplements, but all three are at the least decent, and one of them, Ultramodern 4, I’m probably going to gush at length about when I finally run a full campaign using it. So, in order from least-liked to most:

Blackdirge’s Dungeon Denizens: This one is basically just another Monster Manual. While some of the monsters seem fairly cool, a lot of the appeal for me is reduced by the art inside, which looks like the black and white art from a 2e adventure module. Most of the monsters are forgettable, and while I think someone who runs lots of dungeon delves might like it, for me it’s not a must-have.

The Tomb of Horrors (Updated for 4e by Jacob Dieffenbach): I mentioned previously about my disappointment with the official Tomb of Horrors book, particularly when you want to run it with a group that has never been in the Tomb before. This amazing PDF was an update to the original tomb, keeping all the monsters, puzzles, and ridiculously intricate deathtraps entirely intact. I didn’t manage to run through the entire thing when I had a chance to DM it, but the party got around halfway through, and were having fun (Insofar as you can have fun after getting shredded by several ridiculous traps and spring-loaded spears in a row) despite not even having hit the meatiest parts of the puzzles/deathtraps yet.

Ultramodern 4: This game is beautiful. It uses the 4e powers system to great effect, and expands on it both for modern as well as scifi. I see this as being a perfect place to shift your player group to if they really enjoy both 4e as well as Traveler (Traveler, while a containing a great lifepath system, for me had almost no other appeal). They introduce a variety of new classes, as well as a “Ladder” system to further differentiate your character (Great for all-Human games), and to compensate for a lack of magic items in a campaign. In addition, they introduce two entire classes (Face Man and Mastermind iirc) that have no damaging abilities.

You heard that right. No damaging Powers of any stripe for two entire classes.

They’re fantastic. Face Man is a Controller (Again, going off memory here), who has a suite of abilities to sow confusion and dissent in the enemy ranks. You don’t need to shoot them; instead, make them confused, or easier for your allies to shoot, or make them shoot each other. This would be the perfect way to play Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, as your character is basically designed to be the charismatic-as-hell front man for the party. The Mastermind is more akin to the Warlord, a Leader who can give your own troops a ton of maneuverability and extra attacks. They also have a variety of similar abilities to the Face Man, albeit usually designed to expose single enemies for an ally to shoot/hit.

There’s a nice clean vehicle system that takes up two pages, and one and a half of them are entirely concerned about stunts or really insane driving maneuvers. There’s hardsuits and power armor for those who want a more Ghost-in-the-Shell experience, although it saddens me that they don’t have a very detailed hacking system for that. Apparently the same group made the 4e supplement Amethyst, which covers that and adds their own system, but I’m frankly quite satisfied with Ultramodern 4.

The best part is Ultramodern is still completely, 100% compatible with regular 4e. This is huge. You can play Shadowrun in 4e by just changing the lexicon, which is a relief for me as while I like to deck with my chummers, I’m not hugely fond of the older roll-all-your-dice mechanics or clunky decking setups the previous versions of Shadowrun had. You can also do steampunk Eberron-in-two-centuries style of gameplay with simple weapons like revolvers, and of course go  full hog with Fantasy-in-SPAAAAAACE as well. Hell, you can just export only the Monster Manual beasties from the Abomination subtype and play Call of Cthulhu as well.

It’s fantastic.

Essential? Not really.

I’m touching on Essentials now as opposed to in last part because it was really more of an offshoot of the core D&D 4e than just another supplement. The basic rules and setup are the same as regular 4e, but condensed into a much smaller array of (in theory) easier-to-use books. While initially excited due to the more compact size and corresponding smaller pricetag, I’m far less enamored with them after seeing them in practice. My breakdown is as follows:

Rules Compendium: Spiffy. This book basically is all of the DMG and Player Handbook rules, but minus the Races/Classes/Feat/Skills/Rituals/Traps/Items. So, basically the core rules for combat and gameplay mechanics. It’s a nice reference, and it’s incredibly compact. I do wish it was more of a mini-DMG with monsters and/or traps/items, but it’s a solid purchase.

Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms/Fallen Land: These are troublesome. On the surface, the idea of putting a spread of class and race options across two books is nice, especially in the itty-bitty-book format, but has a variety of issues. Firstly, it’s not really clear which of these is the need-to-have book for a new player. For regular 4e, you have the Player Handbook. Unambiguously named, easy to identify as the core one you need. This isn’t in my opinion a pressing problem, but some have voiced it and I do see that it could be confusing to new players.

The second issue, and for me the far larger one, is the change to Powers granted to the Essentials classes. On the whole, Essentials classes get more At-Will powers and fewer Dailies and Encounters than those classes in base D&D 4e, and I believe the idea was to help make it easier for new players to have more options and choices at all times. I think the idea was well-intentioned, but it ends up resulting in having a lot of At-Wills you never or rarely use, and not having the stopping power to drop larger/beefier monsters. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m advocating having a class be heavy on Encounter and/or Daily powers, as the former will just lead to everybody unloading every power they have, every fight, and lead to boring and routine encounters, and the latter will just lead back to the Five Minute Workday I spoke about in Part 1.

Monster Vault: I don’t own one of these personally, but from what I’ve seen and read, the interior is much akin to a regular Monster Manual, with one glaring exceptions. This is that the monsters get a much more in-depth entry description, instead of being all statblock. While it’s patently nowhere near as ludicrous as the 2e Manual, I’m still unsure of if it would be more of a nuisance or a lifeline in a game. I may end up picking this one up, but I don’t think it’s a must-have.

Overall: The Essentials line, while inexpensive, pulls in several directions at once and somewhat defeats the purpose of having all of the information in a single tome. I think they had meant it with this pitch in mind:

“Hey kids! Did you like what you found in the Red Box, but you don’t want to buy the really expensive books? Well, here’s all you need to play as much as you likely will want, just for $20(ish)!”

This falls short in that the Rules Compendium doesn’t really cover the bases the DMG normally would, and contains no player class/race/etc information or monsters to boot, so it’s not a standalone book. Either of the “Heroes of” books have lots of player stuff, but nothing for the DM to work with, and the Monster Vault contains exactly what it says on the tin. To play D&D Essentials, you needed to buy all 4 books and shell out in the neighborhood of $80-100. Cheaper than the three regular 4e books that came in at $120-150 for the three, but still not cheap and simple enough to attract new players.

I think this was a huge misstep; They should have released a single, core “Basic Essentials” book containing a small array of classes, races, feats, items, monsters, and DMG tools (Skill challenge info, traps, etc). Not a huge array, not exhaustive, but enough to touch on some classics of the genre (Red dragons, magic swords, thieves and wizards, poison dart traps, and so on and so forth), and most importantly, everything you need to play full D&D 4e, no strings attached. Retail that book for $20(ish) and make sure it’s clearly advertised as a standalone, and then offer all of the other Essentials books as non-required $20(ish) supplements. Now you can hook players in with the cheap Red Box, and continue reeling them in with an equally-cheap “Basic Essentials” book.

Then, you at the very least have happy players who haven’t spent their inheritance on a minimum of three or four different books, they have impulse-buy-priced options to expand their collection, and the more complete and comprehensive 4e standard books to upgrade to eventually if they want, instead of pressing a huge amount of purchases on them to begin with. Ah well. I still think pricing games, especially RPGs, within the impulse-buy range ($20 or less) is the best possible idea to get a solid and successful playerbase.

Diamond in the Rough

Now, while this is technically an Essentials book and shares the name with the basic Monster Vault, this right here is a Monster Manual I would recommend above and beyond any previous Manual, Essentials or otherwise. That’s not a typo, as I think this is easily the best and most useful Monster Vault I’ve come across. It’s designed for Heroic and low Paragon play, so most of the really nasty dragons and other solos top off around level 15-17, but it has a ton of content for every level below that.

This book really shines in that it creates encounter groups. Sort of. Each entry isn’t just “Dragons” or “Kobolds” or “Bandits,” but rather the group of kobolds who worship the dragon and get hired muscle from the lizardmen tribes. Now you have the solo (The dragon), but you also have a ton of low level kobolds and higher level lizardmen you can throw into a mix together, right then and there, and oftentimes with abilities or suggested strategies that play well with one another. It makes for both incredibly easy and varied encounter creation, as well as offering really juicy reoccuring groups.

  • There’s the aforementioned dragons
  • A lone white dragon who is crippled
  • The orc clan and their chieftan who were the ones who crippled the dragon
  • The family of human assassins and their crumbling manor
  • The army obsessed with the idea of preserving anything antique as a symbol of their former glory (Say hello to party conflict when they ask for that magic item you found in the tomb)
  • The undead band of adventurers
  • The corpse-collecting golems and the hobgoblin who befriends and appears to lead them, and so on.

These are great, and unless you’re planning on leading a group of Epic tier characters from the get-go, this book is absolutely perfect. On a side note, I would probably give my firstborn to have something like this available for Dark Sun and maybe Eberron.

Enter the Gamma

The newest edition of Gamma World also builds off of the 4e structure, and does a fantastic job of it. While simplified, it still delivers a solid play experience, and has a couple of nice touches I’d like to speak on briefly. As for which I recommend, you need the base game, and then I’d say to get Famine in Far-Go as it contains Cryptic Alliance cards, which allow for weird and unexpected party conflict and cool abilities. Legion of Gold just has more cards and Monsters, but nothing as new or unique as the Alliance cards.

Mechanically, a really nice freeing feature is that your “class” is randomly determined from the two species you roll, giving you weird combinations like Electrical Cat or Yeti Barbarian. This is a great way to have some fun, and a good opportunity to flex the roleplaying muscles you might not normally get to use; Moreso if you play each session in Gamma World as a one-off, something that the system and quick character creation makes very easy. Your level advances and bonuses come from this, and while the increases are minimal compared to those offered by advancement in D&D 4e, they do have some degree of choice involved in them.

The monsters, traps, and skills are basically the same as for D&D (I think they swap in the Scientist and Mechanics skills, and drop Arcana/Religion/Dungeoneering among others), but one interesting change is the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech. Alpha Mutations basically act as Encounter Powers; You get to use them once per encounter, but if you use them they get shuffled into the deck and you draw new ones. Omega Tech is basically a one-use Daily power, with a chance to salvage it at the end of the day and reuse it instead of discarding it and not drawing a replacement. Each type of Alpha and Omega card had a flavor, which some species could exploit for larger bonuses. Both of these card types factored into some odd deck-building mechanic that was apparently supposed to parallel a release of booster packs for the Alpha and Omega cards, but that never really went anywhere (WotC has a weird obsession with trying to cram booster packs into anything, including weirdness like Fortune Cards that I’ll mention fleetingly later).

The other big mechanic I really loved was the way they handled weapons. Weapons were either one-handed or two-handed, melee or ranged, light or heavy, and with ranged weapons coming in the flavors regular or gun. This gave 14 weapon options, but covered basically every base you could imagine wanting to. The one-handed vs two-handed offered higher hit bonuses vs higher damage, and light or heavy determined both hit bonus vs damage as well as what attributes were used for the bonus to-hit.Guns (Which typically had drastically higher damage) had a wonderful mechanic in which they could either be used once per encounter, or put on “Auto” and used as many times as you could during the encounter. Picking the latter option automatically meant you were “Out of ammo” at the end of the encounter, and had to find more “Ammo” to use the Gun again.

Armor and Shields were likewise simplified, and overall it meant that picking combat equipment for your character was a breeze. Noncombat gear was randomly rolled for you, sometimes resulting in useful stuff like duct tape, and other times in Twinkies or potted plants. Combat was just as fluid as 4e, and combined with the character creation system, this makes for a fantastic one-shot game or something to play a limited campaign arc with.

These aren’t worth your money.

These are.

How Unfortunate

Yeesh. Fortune Cards were D&D’s attempt to try and release something similar to Paizo’s Plot Twist cards. The Plot Twist cards are fantastic ways of giving players a way to surprise you as the GM with a narrative change*, or a d20 SRD bonus like a reroll of bonus to certain kinds of checks/attacks.I heartily reccomend getting both them and the Flashback versions of them.

However, for Paizo, the focus with their cards was on the narrative change. WotC missed this, and instead made a card that was all rules, minimal or no fluff or narrative effect beyond a flowery title and a cool bit of art. This makes them great for competitive gaming, but much less all-around useful for RPG gaming (And especially terrible if you didn’t have many, resigning yourself to getting cards you would or could never use anyways).

Unless you are getting bulk 10-packs-for-$1 kind of deals, or really like fairly flavorless rule bonus cards, I’d advise against getting these.

*It is difficult at time to get payers to use them without mandating they do so. Currently, my players have hoarded theirs, forcing me to to slow my rate of awarding them in order to make sure that they don’t end up with all the cards. I think I may end up switching it up so they start each session with just 1 card, can gain cards by doing/saying awesome things (Like Savage World Bennies), and at the end of the session discard down to 1 card. So they can hold on to a limited spread of cards, but don’t feel like they have to use everything each session or save all their cards for the big bad only.

Legend of the Wrath of the Vampire

While not technically D&D 4e games/supplements, Wrath of Ashardalon, Legend of Drizzt, and Castle Ravenloft are all three fantastic Heroquest-style boardgames using a very loose version of the 4e rules. Players pick Heroes, stomp through dungeons, and try to accomplish set scenario objectives, often killing a boss or recovering objects. They are incredibly easy to learn and teach, and play relatively quickly and look absolutely gorgeous on the table. There’s no DM required, and control of monsters is fast and intuitive.

Personally, I like Ashardalon best, as although it’s bosses are fairly ridiculously tough, the rest of it is quite solid. Drizzt is great for co-op with multiple players, but honestly given that the titular character is a well-known loner, it feels like he was sorta shoehorned into having friends. Ravenloft is similar to Ashardalon, but with all the difficulty dials turned to 11. You could replace Zarovich with Acererak and get a perfectly appropriate Tomb of Horrors.

I heartily recommend getting all three of these, and it drives me nuts that that’s all they made. Seriously, an outdoor Nentir Vale one, a Dark Sun one, a Tomb of Horrors one; they all would have made crazy money, and certainly cajoled $75 out of my own pocket each time.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Well, this brings me to my close for D&D 4e. It’s been a good run, and I think I’ll keep hugging my books tightly and snatching up the encounter modules missing from our collection as people inevitably sell off their old 4e stuff as 5e rolls in (Although, oddly enough, 4e books in used book stores are massively outnumbered by 3e material, even moreso than print runs and general popularity of each would lead you to think. Hmmmm, it almost seems like people are getting rid of their 3e books more than 4e…..).

Overall, I suspect that the mantras of “It looks like an MMORPG” and “It’s too tactical” will fade as 5e reopens the wizard vs warrior wounds anew and as WotC continues to “borrow” elements wholesale from it without trying to make it that evident. I hold hope that 6e will be a return to the 4e setup of a strong mathematical and balanced framework, and that they launch the system strongly aimed at new players and getting them interested. The Red Box forty years ago showed how insanely popular a cheap, accessible** game could be, and I think returning to that with a cheap, $10-15 D&D setup that’s easy to learn and play (Maybe using the Red Box choose-your-own-adventure walkthrough to teach the rules) would revitalize D&D in a new generation of gamers.

So, what are your thoughts on 4e? Were you excited to see it come, did you play it while it was here, and do you care now that it’s being phased out for 5e?

**This is of course relative. Despite his many skills, Gygax was not a clear writer in many of his rules, and I wonder how many people THAC0 scared away.

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