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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Comparing 3E vs 4E DM Prep Times

by Ken Newquist / August 8, 2008

This week's game sees us returning to our Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition roots after weeks of beating up 4th Edition in our Planetorn playtest campaign. The playtest's not over, just on hiatus because of real-world player obligations, and this pause is giving us a chance to go back and tie up some loose ends in our other campaigns.

That means I've had a chance to leaf through my old 3rd edition books, browse the d20 srd, and spend some time reflecting on the game master side of the 3E vs. 4E battle. This is the second time in a month that I've done this -- I also ran a high-level 3.5 adventure in late July -- and while some people may hate to hear this, I've come to one undeniable conclusion:

4th Edition takes far less time to prep for than 3rd edition.

Monster vs. Monster

Now I will say that I'm not comparing apples and oranges here: our 4th Edition Planetorn campaign is all about exploring strange new worlds, and almost all of its encounters have featured creatures from the Monster Manual with the occasional quick sketch NPC (and I've cheated by using 3E shorthand to stat out those characters, though I should really try my hand at 4E NPC creation).

Our current Dark City 3.5 edition campaign is role-playing intensive, and primarily deals with fully fleshed out NPCs.

That said, even if I only compare the monster segment of my prep time, 4E winds hands down. The reason why isn't that the 4th Edition Monster Manual is better organized than the 3E version. It's that 4th Edition's exceptions based ruleset means that each monster has its own specialized attacks and powers, independent of any other monster. Because these microrules are defined in the creature's statblock, there's no need to look up anything in another rule book. I can simply read the statblock, grok the rules, and then bookmark or photocopy the page for future reference.

In 3rd edition, I rarely get off that easy. Anything more than the most basic creature is going to have some spell-like ability, power or trick that's referred to in another rule book. For example, when I ran our high-level 3E one shot, I threw a horned devil at the party. Now thankfully, the d20 SRD has already hyperlinked all of this devil's special abilities and powers, but I still have to go through and read each individual spell entry, calculate the amount of damage the monster will do at its level, note the DC, and jot all this down in my adventure notes so I'm not scrambling to look things up in game.

This added a considerable amount of time to my game prep, and more importantly, it's the kind of drudge work that I suspect few people like doing, and it took away from being able to work on the story's plot (or, more likely, being able to call it a day early and hit the sack).

If Paizo's looking for suggestions on how to improve Pathfinder over 3x, I think the single biggest thing they could do on the GM side is to retool all of the 3rd edition SRD monsters to include statblocks with one line power summaries, target numbers, difficulty classes, and damage dealt. It's a massive undertaking to be sure, but I think for some folks it will come down to the difference between running the game, not running the game, or converting to 4th Edition.

Human Rabble and Other Common Shemps

Another advantage that 4th Edition has is that it's gone ahead and statted out a bunch of shemps. That is, generic characters that can easily be swapped in and out of any encounter. Shemps exist for all of the human and demi-human races in the PHB, and they're a tremendous time savor. The human entry alone includes write-ups for human rabble (Level 3 minion), human minion (Level 7 minion), human bandit (Level 2 skirmisher), human guard (level 3 soldier), human berserker (level 4 brute) and human mage (level 4 artillery).

I can quickly modify this shemps into something more interesting using the functional templates and class templates from the Dungeon Master's Guide (the former satisfy a particular niche in the game, like bodyguard or demon acolyte, while the later provide an NPC with a few class-based abilities).

3rd Edition did some of this -- most of the Monster Manuals have at least base entries for the various player character races -- but they're not as varied and shemp-able as in 4th Edition.


Now as I mentioned earlier, I've been cheating with my 4E NPC statblocks, so I haven't done a proper comparison between creating a fully-detailed 4E NPC vs. his 3E equivalent. Mostly I've just done what I've been doing in 3E, which is jotting down a few quick game stats -- e.g. Jith Vendhzar, Master of the Obsinias House is merely a Wizard 10/Loremaster 5, with Knowledge (Arcana) +20 and Knowledge (Planar) +20. I have only a vague idea what his 4E stats would be (probably something like Wizard 20 with the paragon path of Loremaster) but for my purposes, I don't need it. Jith's essentially a plot device right now, and shorthand is enough.

My sense though, from having created a few experimental characters for 4E, is that NPC creation will go quicker simply by virtue of having fewer choices than 3E. Under 3rd edition, I'd have 15 levels of skills to sort through to create an NPC, not to mention a few dozen spells. Under 4E, you only ever get a handful of at-will, encounter, daily and utility powers, and even adding in a few rituals the amount of prep time is probably half, if not 1/4 that of the 3rd edition NPC.

There's also the fact that in some cases, I don't need to create new NPCs from scratch; for a few of the Planetorn encounters I've simply tweaked the human entries from the Monster Manual. When cultists attacked the party while traveling from Azra, City of Bronze, to the Pillars of Glass, I simply grabbed a couple of human rabble, two bandits and a mage, then applied a "scion of flame" template from the Dungeon Master's Guide to the mage. It's like a shake-and-bake encounter, and it took far less time to prep than the equivalent would have under 3E (even using the generic warrior statblocks we created years ago for exactly this purpose).

That said, I do need to test creating full-blooded NPCs, so for my next 4E Game Day column I'll stat out Jith in his 3E and 4E incarnations, and report back on how things went.

The Fire in Which We Burn

Ultimately, this is one of the aspects of 4th Edition that I find so frustrating. From my side of the screen, I find the game to be a significant improvement because at every turn, they've made my job easier. Combined with my Three Page Manifesto, I'm able to knock my D&D prep time down to an hour. As a geek dad who never has enough time, that's a huge deal.

And yet, at the same time on the player side I find the system far more limiting. Powers have made all of the classes feel more generic, and while there's still a good deal of customization available in the game, I miss the quirky uniqueness that each class had under previous editions and yes, I miss the inherent, amazingly deep 3E crunch factor.

If Paizo can cherry pick the best aspects of 4E for Pathfinder -- and they should have no trouble doing that, since most of the stuff I've mentioned is presentational, rather than mechanical, in nature -- then they may just have my perfect system.


That said, I still don't agree that 4e had to go AS FAR in a new direction as it did. Several of the concepts that are present in 4E could easily have been folded into 3.75 or whatever you want to call it. Pathfinder is realizing just that.

I can't wait to get my copy of the Beta rules...There will be soem good stuff there.

Good article though, I have found pick up games with my kids to be a breeze these dyas, and they don't know the difference anyway.


I long ago adopted customizable software tools designed to take the numbers crunch out of game prep for 3e...

I'll wager I could prep a 3e game as fast or faster than a 4e game, at least until they get all the DDI tools up and running anyway.

Great post!

My group just finished playing Keep on the Shadowfell, and I got a chance to play. I agree that my PC had fewer options in combat as compared to 3.x, but for me that's more than washed out by the fact that every turn I had at least one and usually several GOOD options.

Being able to make a significant choice and then do something cool in nearly every round made combats more fun, and made them go by faster as well. I find 3.x combat to be a huge chore more often than not, and doubly so at higher levels.

It's tough to compare them outside of combat based on years of 3.x campaigns vs. one published 4e module, but I could see the truncated skill list and lack of out-of-combat powers being a downside.

Like you, I think I'll love prepping for 4e sessions as a GM.

I agree that much of 4e could have easily been wrapped into a 3.75 release and that the classes don't have the same feel as in 3.5. They are kind of bland now. But at the same time we had seven years and countless supplements that built upon the original material. Give 4e the time and I think we will see that class uniqueness return. Since one of the biggest complaints I have heard from people that like 4e is the fact they feel too limited with each class I think that is something that WotC will build upon/explore in future supplements.

BTW I think DMing (prep time) is waaaay faster and easier in 4e. I'm getting spoiled by having so much of the info (stats, npcs) ready to use at a moments notice with little to no tweaking necessary.

I've heard a lot of folks defend 4E's class choices by saying "but this is only the first release! There are plenty of more books coming!" Which is absolutely true, but comparing PHB to PHB, 3.0 had more classes, and more choices.

Of course, some classes were more equal than others, but I digress. :)

Eventually, I think 4E will catch-up with some of those options, as we get the Martial and Arcane powers supplements, plus PHB II. But at the same time, there are some areas where I don't think it will ever catch up, because that's simply not the nature of the game.

And yes, I'm speaking of druid, cleric and wizard spell lists. Look at the wizards 1st level powers in 4E, then compare the same list in 3E. Now some of those spells can/will become rituals, but ultimately your daily choices as a wizard or cleric were far greater under 3E than 4E. The very nature of the classes has changed in the new edition, making both something more like an old sorcerer than a traditional Vancian spellcaster.

That's a fundamental design choice in 4E, because they want every class to be inherently balanced against one another by the number of powers they can execute in a given encounter/day. They truly are equal, in name and abilities, but to do that, they had to sacrifice the diversity of the spellcasters.

For folks who loved the depth and complexity of the 3E magic system, this is a deal breaker. Unless we see a radical overhaul of 4E's magic system, I don't think you're going to win those people over (they'll stick with 3.5 or Pathfinder).

Personally, I get why they did what they did with 4E. And I could see using it to run a campaign, particularly in something like Eberron, where I want to reinforce the differences between it and traditional fantasy. But the Forgotten Realms? Or Greyhawk? Well, I think that is a very difficult fit. It might get better as more options become available, but I think it's still round peg, square-h ole.

Thanks Martin!

Characters do get a number of cool abilities, and there are certainly players in our playtest campaign who are loving the new powers. They like the fact that they can focus on and the fact that they can focus on what their character does, and not have to look everything up in a book.

That said, while those folks love being able to do something cool every round, the complexity crowd was frustrated by having to do the same cool thing every round (or having to pick from the same limited pool of things).

We've found combats take about as long as our mid-level combats in 3rd edition. What I think makes the game feel like it's going faster is that people are more focused on what's happening at the table. 4E's focus on teamwork, rather than individualism, means that it's very much a game of working together to setup power-combinations to better defeat your enemies. In 3E, there was teamwork... but you could get away with doing your own thing. In 4E, that'll get your party killed.

The team work angle actually mitigates some of the lack-of-player-options issues that 4E has because the game's much better about actively encouraging people to work with each other. It's not just about what cool trick you're going to pull off this round, but how you can setup your buddy to pull of his own stellar maneuver.

I can't remember which D&D developer said it -- I think it was Mike Mearls -- but if 3E was all about character optimization, then 4E is all about party optimization.

Given that, I think that 4E is going to be hit or miss when it comes to individual campaigns; it's all going to be a question of whether it fits your play style, or whether your group can adapt to it. If not, then I'm sure folks will stick with one of the alternatives.

I've love to know which tools you're using.

Right now I use HeroForge, which is a monster Excel spreadsheet for NPC generation. I also use a bunch of different random generators, like RPG Inspiration and Seventh Sanctum, for names and such, and CrystalBall for dice rolling, name generation and treasure bundles.

None of these things get around the real bear of 3.x adventure prep (at least for me) which is looking up all those damn spells and abilities. If anyone has any tools for that, I'd love to see 'em. :)

"some people may hate to hear this, I've come to one undeniable conclusion: 4th Edition takes far less time to prep for than 3rd edition."

As one of the "hell no, i won't go" crowd (i've stopped playing d&d while the group playtests 4e), I assume you're sorta pitching that comment in my general direction. :)

Actually, I don't hate to hear that at all. In reading through the DMG and your comments on prep time I think WotC gave an absolutely great upgrade to the DM side of the game. If they had done anything remotely as solid for the player side of the game, 4e would have been perfect.

Alas, that was not the case.

But the upside is that other systems and perhaps future versions of D&D may be able to keep the DM groove and combine it with a good player groove.

And then THEY'LL have the perfect system. lol!!

I would seriously be surprised if it ends up being WotC, though. I'm betting that the D&D brand completely tanks in 3-4 years and Hasbro sells it to someone else.

WotC did start out goof after taking the ball from TSR, they gained a few tough yards and then, just as it seemed that they might break free, they dropped the ball.

I would't mind a new owner for D+D, but I do not want the game to 'tank.'

N.B for Hasbro (as seller) or any potential buyer: the thing is worth more if it is still in ok shape.

Yeah, that's pitched in your direction, though it's really more in the general direction of the anti-4E crowd. :) There's a lot of people taking a scorched earth approach to 4E that I personally don't agree with. It's not an awful game, and IMHO there are lessons to be learned and possibly repurposed for other games.

I think your comment about the player side is too general -- they did build something as solid, it's just not your style of play. There are plenty of folks who love it ... and that's because it does fit their style of play.

I don't think that D&D 4E is doomed to crash and burn because, at least from anecdotal evidence, their strategy of trying to pull in younger, more video-game oriented players is working. I've seen more than a few blog comments from new players who say "third edition was too complicated, I just wanted to be able to swing my axe" and then say that 4th edition does exactly what they want (as infuriating as that may be for those like us who love all of 3E's crunchy bits).

And as I've said offline, I don't think this is anything new. There has always been a "Basic D&D" vs. "Advanced D&D" split among the player base. With 3rd Edition, the AD&D crowd won out; with 4th Edition, the Basic crowd did.

I agree that 4E didn't have to go as far as they did, though to a certain extent, having 3.5 come out forced their hand in that. Another incremental upgrade would likely have been problematic from a sales standpoint.

Personally, I find Star Wars: Saga Edition to be a near-perfect middleground between 3.x and 4.x. It gets ride of iterative attacks, changes saves to defenses, and streamlines the skill system, but retains a robust multiclassing system that allows players to easily customize their characters using talent trees.

I take issue with the way saves/defenses/whatever work when multiclassing (in Saga). Actually, I find it difficult to imagine a scenario where it doesn't make sense NOT to multiclass a character. On the other hand it does sort of enforce the sort of Jack of all trades aspect of all the big names in the movies. None of the main characters were single class characters... Except maybe a few jedi.

I'll need to look at how Defenses and Multiclassing work in Star Wars; it's been a while since I whipped up a character. And yeah, mutliclassing is everywhere in Star Wars: Saga Edition, but I do think it fits the setting. Even the Jedi have different strengths and specialities, so while you could be a straight class character, I think multiclassing gives you something a little more organic.

I think that I will have to check SW: Saga Ed. out. It sounds like alot of what 4e ought to be.

That's how I feel. If I ever start running a Saga game I want to work on a Sword and Sorcery conversion for the character classes. There would be surprising little work involved in that.

I'm not buying any of it. I have decided. I can borrow books if need be, but...

If Eberron looks good, I might re-evaluate my No4e stand. Might.
Right now I'm selling off the 3.5 Eberron collection to people I game with (because, I am a mercenary bastard and hope to still get some use out of the books, right?) I love the setting... to play in. I keep thinking about running and I always want to change stuff. Lots of stuff. So, I figure, why not just build from scratch then?

But, if Eberron does things with the system that make me happy, and if after borrowing the books and consuming them, if it is two great tastes that go together... I might come back. But, I'm not going to fall back into the habit of collecting games I never run or play again.

Very true. You could swap out the Force system for a Magic system like that in Savage Worlds, requiring skill checks to cast spells (and rewarding exceptional rolls with exceptional results).

That post was very interesting. I would certainly like to see Prep Time chopped for 3.5.

I was comparing the Succubus from 3E and the 4E version. And the 3E version looks like a massive headache next to it. I tried to simplify the 3E format to make it easier for the DM to run.

Take a look at this:

These are the changes I made to simplify and make the stat block better/clearer:

3E stat block ---> 3.5 new stat block
Skills ---> pathfinder merged skills
Togues ---> languages all
Energy drain ---> simplified
Charm Monster, Suggestion --> Special Attacks
Detect thoughts, detect good ---> Senses
Teleport, ethereal jaunt ---> Speed
Change Shape --> Special Quality
Persuasive ---> Skills
Dodge, Mobility ---> AC

It's still a lot more info than for the 4E but a lot better organized and quicker to comprehend, with no annoying references.

That's excellent -- that's pretty much what I was thinking of when I was prepping 3E. A statblock like this would make high level combats a hell of a lot easier because it gives you everything at your finger tips. Sure, you should probably go an review the full spell, but this is enough to get you up and running.

You should post this over in the Pathfinder Beta forums; I don't know if they have a monster book planned (I have to think they do) but even if not, this is the sort of statblock that 3.5 fans can rally around.

(ok, I know that's a very geeky thing to say but ... well, it's true).