D&D 4e - thoughts so far

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As any self-respecting nerd knows, the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released this summer. It's probably the most significant overhaul the game has had, at least in my almost 20 years of playing, and reactions predictably range from fawning adulation to burning in effigy. I've only played two sessions of the new edition - once this running the beginning parts of Keep on the Shadowfell, and once, just over Christmas, as a player in a play-testy mid-level dungeon crawl.

So far, I'd say there's a lot to like with the new edition, but enough bad that I don't think I'll exert any effort to migrate from 3.5. I find myself wishing there were a v3.75 as an intermediate step - though I expect such a thing will evolve eventually, thanks to teh interwebs. Some thoughts:

Good stuff:

  • Design transparency. Between preview releases, podcasts, online columns & forums, etc, it seems that the game designers have provided a lot more information on the why of any given decision than for any game (rpg or otherwise) I've seen in the past.

    I think this makes it easier to figure out how to modify the game to one's own tastes, because it helps show where to make changes, and what to watch out for.

  • Monster design. Monsters had previously been treated very much as player characters run by the DM - at higher levels, they had dozens of special abilities each, and making a monster more or less powerful was a process as labor intensive as leveling up a character. Way too much work to run. 4e has trimmed down each monster's abilities to "the good stuff", providing fewer choices to worry about during play, but has also provided several different versions of each monster tailored to specific purposes.

    Instead of just "hobgoblin", which you can add class levels to for some clunky specialization, you get a front-line fighter hobgoblin, an artillery hobgoblin, and a magicky battlefield-control hobgoblin, each of which has its own limited set of abilities.

  • Encounter design. The absolute best part of the edition. 3e had the problem of assuming that encounters were the party against one monster or antagonist. For those of us who like somewhat larger combats, the encounter balancing breaks down pretty quickly. You either get a group of monsters too wimpy to challenge the players or else get regularly accused of being too lethal. (Thanks, Daniel!)

    4e provides for this desire, providing a solid design for groups of critters, so that those subtypes of monsters above can be reasonably combined, expanding the interesting-but-not-lethal range of encounters dramatically.

  • Minions. A subset of the above two items good enough for its own bullet point. The idea is monsters tough enough you don't want them attacking you, but that die upon taking any damage at all.

    This is exactly what you need for the cinematic Lord of the Rings style battles, in which Aragorn can mow through hordes of orcs and Legolas can shoot three arrows at once, taking out three foes. And yet, if they don't get mown down fast enough, Boromir dies, because they actually are dangerous.

  • Attacks vs. Fort/Refl/Will. The best part of the new play mechanics - spells or other non-weapon attacks now have the same mechanic as weapons, and characters have multiple "defenses" instead of saving throws. If I attack with a sword, I roll d20, my Strength vs. your Armor Class. If I attack with a fireball, I roll d20, my Intelligence vs. your Reflex. If I try a charm, I roll d20, my Charisma vs. your Will.

    I think this is the place where standardization and streamlining of different types of rules really won big. Now roll modifiers work similarly across all types of attacks, and the usefulness of the Int/Wis/Cha attributes is more clearly boosted.

  • Skill Challenges. I don't think the mechanic is great, especially with the dumbed-down skills system, but the idea is good. The skill challenges provide a way to put thoughtful/skillful characters in the spotlight in major encounters by providing a way for making major encounters that are skill-based rather than combat-based. I think the basic rules for this can be adapted very easily, with the specific mechanic improved by assigning bonuses or penalties to players' skill checks based on how well they role-play the encounter.

Okay, so the bad stuff:

  • Character design and advancement. *Cringe.* The game is all about the players' characters. You might think broken character design would be a gamekiller, and, yes, I think it pretty much is. The idea was to make characters more balanced across low/mod/high-level game play, rather than having wizards be useless at first level and outshine the rest of the party combined by about 12th. There was also some desire to make spellcasting characters easier to play while giving other characters more options, so that you didn't always have the most experienced player taking the wizard because they were the only person who could manage the spell lists. Fair enough.

    But the result is that spellcasters are made easier to play in a very boring way - all wizards are now blaster wizards - while all other characters are made much much harder to design and play. The sheer proliferation of choices during character creation, and the option management during play means that the unwieldy part of the game has now been placed where it does the most damage. Getting a newbie player into the game now provides them with more intimidation up front, and less that can be set aside until later. Meanwhile, multi-classing has been essentially abandoned - that was, I think, a much better way to provide characters with higher-level flexibility and options that didn't swamp the low levels by forcing those options.

  • Magic Item Focus. My least favorite part of 3e was the assertion that characters had to have a certain amount of magical hardware in order to be "properly powered". One problematic result was that every character ends up looking almost like a mecha by mid-levels: they've got magic rings, magic gloves, magic armor, magic boots, magic cloak, magic helm, magic amulet, magic goggles, for pete's sake. It de-emphasizes the character in favor of his gear. The other problematic result is that this proliferation of gear means it has to come from somewhere. As a result, the game rules provide for cranking out magic items by the dozen with no special effort and assume magical item stores in towns of any size. No longer is a magical sword something exciting and rare - it turns into something that's about as interesting as a t-shirt.

    4e seems to take this process even further - for the first time, extensive magical item tables are provided in the "Equipment" chapter of the Player's Handbook, explicitly cheapening them to mundane stuff that simply costs a little more. Ho hum.

  • Random setting changes. Old curmudgeon mode on: what the heck is a Dragonborn? Or an Eladrin? And when did Tieflings become a standard character race? And what happened to Gnomes and Half-orcs? A lot of changes in which races and classes are available seem to have been made for the sake of Change, without a lot of gameplay rationale. Sure, fine, not too many people played gnomes in the past. But how many more played Eladrin? (None. Thank you.) So why are we eliminating gnomes as "not differentiated enough from dwarves or halflings" and replacing them with something that's effectively a second elf? The designers claim that they're unhitching the core rules from a "default setting", but I find that the choices of races included or not seems to drive a lot of assumptions about the game setting throughout the rules. And the "ruleset distinct from setting" claim really breaks down in the Forgotten Realms setting, where the world literally had to be destroyed and reinvented between 3e and 4e in order to explain how the rule changes, and the default setting assumptions built into them, worked.

All in all, I think the Dungeon Master's half of the ruleset has been dramatically improved in 4e - but the player side is painful enough that I'm not going to cheerfully make the switch in games I'm running. Considering that I've run or played in three campaigns over the past year, and have been teaching the rules to newbies in all three, I hardly look forward to switching to a system that front-loads so much of the complexity of the game.

I'm willing to be told I'm wrong, though, and I'm certainly willing to believe that my opinion of the player-side changes is partly rooted in 20 years of experience with the various iterations of the old system. For now, though, I can't say I like D&D4.

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wtf, i actually read that. what was i thinking?


You saw the intro that read, "As any self-respecting nerd knows," and figured you'd better make sure you knew!

Nice writeup

Thanks for writing up your impressions. Interestingly, I'm coming back to D&D as someone who hasn't played for over 20 years and I'm starting in on 4e. I don't really have 3e to compare to (only 1e!), but I've run a dozen or more sessions so far and so I've had some time to build up some opinions.

First, I agree whole-heartedly that using a unified mechanic for melee, spells, whatever has made the game very consistent and quite learnable. In an encounter, my players will try to figure out which, if any, of a creatures defenses are weaker, and tailor their attacks, which is fun. I like not having to reference weird tables to figure out what is happening. Gone are my days of squinting at a DM's screen and slowing battle down figuring out if the attack hits.

Second, the character creation process is complicated, but it hasn't stopped my newbies from playing. Most of the newbies are content to let an experienced player guide them through their 1st & 2nd level choices. I then give them a free chance to retrain once they have picked up the rules. Our Wizard, instead of memorizing the spell lists, has gone out and memorized all of the skills for all of the classes. When a less involved player is stumped for a power choice, I just point them at the Wizard and he is happy to help them balance, optimize, what-have-you.

Third, I agree that the new encounter creation system is pretty good. I'm much less in the dark about what will be a challenging level of play. My group has gotten a bit too large (8 players at times) and I find that I need to ramp the encounters a little harder to keep the adrenaline up.