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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

Reboot your game with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

by Ken Newquist / September 14, 2008

There's an old Star Trek acronym called "IDIC", which stands for "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations". Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was all about IDIC, with infinite combinations of characters played out across thousands of campaigns and dozens of different game systems.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is about FDFC -- Finite Diversity in Finite Combinations. It's about focusing the game on a certain style of play, making it faster, easier and more streamlined, but at the cost of limiting player options.

The 30-level Sweet Spot

The goals of 4th Edition have been articulated many times by its designers.
They wanted to expand D&D's sweet spot -- the happy place where rules complexity balanced perfectly against ease to play from the 5th-12th level of 3E to 1st to 30th in 4E.

They wanted to get rid of the "Five-Minute Work Day", in which spellcasters blew all their spells in one big combat, and then the heroes retreated back to their castles/guild halls to rest, recover and do it all again (the net result of which was to unbalance the wizards and clerics vs. other classes by giving them access to their best powers in every combat). They wanted to speed up the game by limiting player choices, overhauling complicated subsystems, and gutting the magic system to its core essentials. They wanted to encourage team work, by providing players with reasons -- and mechanics -- to work together.

To accomplish these goals they've fearlessly (and some would argue recklessly and callously as well) gutted Dungeons & Dragons down to its very core. They've ditched 30+ years of game design, negating much of what was in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Third Edition in favor of a new exceptions based design that borrows equally from collectible card games and World of Warcraft.

Glancing through the rules, this may sound like hyperbole; after all many of the core concepts that have been in the game since the beginning are still there. Familiar classes, like fighter, wizard, rogue and ranger, exist alongside new ones like warlords and warlocks. The same goes for the core races, with dwarves, elves and humans returning alongside new species such as dragonborn and tieflings. There are still three core rule books -- the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual and even a few of the old gods survived into the new era.

It's how all of this is implemented that will have diehard 3E players clutching their dice bags in horror and screaming "Not on my watch they don't! NOT ON MY WATCH!" while others, less enthralled or perhaps just tired of the previous eight years of D&D look on with interest.

A Shattered Reflection

In 4th Edition every class has a suite of powers it can evoke on and off the battlefield (though primarily on). Powers are divided into "at will" (useable whenever you like), "encounter" (useable once per fight), "daily" (usable once per day) and "utility" (secondary buff-type powers usable in or out of combat, usually once a day).

Each power breaks the rules in some small way, allowing an extra attack, providing some battlefield effect, or some other advantage. Each class has two power trees associated with it; for example wizards can pick from striker or controller type powers, rangers balance expertise with ranged attacks against the ability to fight with two melee weapons, and rogues decide between taking a brawny or deceptive approach to adventuring.

Classes gain these powers in lock-step with one another, which provides a sort of inherent balance to the system because everyone can do the same number of amazing things every day. This blows away the varying levels of complexity seen in 3E, and re-zeroes it, raising the low end (the simple, straightforward one-trick pony characters such as fighters or barbarians) and lowering the high end (the ultra complex wizards and clerics with their deep spell lists).

With classes no longer being distinguished by their complexity, the emphasis changes to their role in combat. Each is divided into a number of different roles that should be familiar to anyone who's played Warcraft or any other massively-multiplayer online games. You've got "defenders" (fighters, paladins) who serve the traditional tank role and are good at dealing out damage and getting others to attack them. There are "strikers" (rogues, rangers) which are good at doing lots of damage quickly, then moving on, "leaders" (warlords, clerics) who allow their allies to receive extra actions and additional healing, and controllers (wizards) who are experts at manipulating the layout of the battlefield and affecting large numbers of creatures.

This role- and exceptions-based approach extends to the Monster Manual. While every monster has some sort of basic melee or ranged attack, each also has a suite of powers that are unique to that monster or his species. Unlike 3E, in which monsters played by the same rules as players, in 4E, every monster's rules (like every player's powers) are a mini-ruleset onto themselves. There's no reason to look up how, say, concealment works for a displacer beast, because every thing DMs need to know about that power can be found in the monster's statblock.

Some of the spell depth of the clerical and wizard classes returns in the form of rituals. Rituals allow the casting of old-style utility spells such as "animal messenger" and "raise dead" outside of combat. Rituals require a special "Ritual Caster" feat to use, and most (but not all) require a skill check to cast. Clerics and wizards get the rituals for free, but anyone can cast them assuming they have ranks in the skill that's keyed to the ritual.

Another major change is the concept of tiers: the game is now divided into three tiers: heroic (levels 1-10), paragon (levels 11-20) and epic (levels 21-30). Minor tweaks to character bonuses and difficulty classes (which represent how hard it is to accomplish a task) accompany each tier, with an eye toward keeping things as challenging at 30th level as they were at 1st. New powers also open up at these different tiers; at "paragon" characters get access to paragon paths, which represent specialized abilities not unlike 3E's prestige classes, while the "epic" tier introduces destinies -- the goal or fate that the character hopes to accomplish as they accumulate truly cosmic power.

Magic items are keyed to character level and are designed to complement a character's abilities at the different tiers. Thus, you have "Level 3" swords that might have a minor flame ability on par with heroic tier powers, as well as level 25 swords capable of rending an enemy's soul. Nothing stops a player from holding on to old magic items, but the assumption is that -- as in video games -- players will trade up for better items as the campaign progresses.

There are other lesser changes. Saving throws are all but gone, having been replaced by Fortitude, Reflex and Will defenses. This inverts the normal order of things; instead of defenders trying to evade effects, attackers are now trying to overcome defenses. Saving throws remain in a vestigile role; ongoing effects in the game (such as being slowed or put to sleep) now get a saving throw each around. It's a generic save -- everyone tries to get 10 or better on a d20 roll, with no modifiers for abilities and such -- and its mostly exists for bookkeeping reasons.

Action dice, seen in Wizards of the Coast's d20 Modern, Unearthed Arcana and Eberron are part of the core rules in 4E. At the heroic tier, players can spend an action point to take another standard action, and at paragon tier, players gain additional ways to spend them.

Embracing Finite Character Design

So how does the game play? Assuming you can put aside its radical departure from Dungeons & Dragon's three-decade history ... the answer is pretty well.

On the character side, it's much easier (and quicker) to create a character under 4th Edition that it is under 3rd, mostly because -- on average -- there are fewer options to choose from. There are some cases where that doesn't hold true -- it's almost impossible to create a one-trick-pony warrior, simply because even the "dumb fighter" types have enough powers to make them dangerous. On the other end of the spectrum though (and this is where the greatest time savings are), clerics and wizards have far fewer options to choose from.

The stripped down (one might even say desiccated) skills system makes choosing skills a five-minute task but the lack of profession, craft and performance skills means that players looking to give their characters some tradecraft abilities are going to be out of luck in this game. Fisherman turned adventurer? Sorry sir -- we've only go room for heroes on this adventure!

While creating a character is easier, Wizards blew and opportunity to make it a lot easier by failing to define critically important terms before getting into the classes chapter. Specifically, while the start-of-chapter overview talks about attacks and hits, they never actually define such critical concepts as "basic melee attack", "basic ranged attack" and "[W]".

The "basic attack" types are referred to time and again in the powers descriptions, but we don't get definitions of them until you get to the Combat chapter in the last quarter of the book. More glaring was the [W] designation used in the "hit" section of each power. Everyone in my group fumbled when figuring out what this meant, and ultimately had to go digging through the combat chapter to learn it means "weapon damage" (so 1[W] means the normal damage your weapon does on a hit; 2[W] means that the power causes you do do twice the normal damage).

These are small things, but if they tripped up veteran players, I expect they'd trip up newbies as well.

I'm tempted to quibble over the starting races featured in the book -- I was sad to see gnomes go -- but if you're going to remake the game, these sorts of losses are expected. Classes, though, are another matter. The Player's Handbook had the subtitle "Arcane, Divine, and Martial" heroes. This means that -- by design -- they've left out nature- or primal-based classes, such as the druid and the barbarian -- as well as skillful classes like the the bard. They've also gotten rid of the traditional wizard schools, meaning that necromancers and illusionists have been kicked to the curb.

To me, this leaves a gaping hole in their product, and it makes it difficult to run certain kinds of campaigns -- for example, when we began discussing our 4E playtest campaign I proposed hurling our group backwards in time 3,000 years to Greyhawk's ancient past. The party would play the Kulls to their modern day Conans and do battle against the terrible ur-Flan druid-necromancers of that era, the greatest of whom was known as ... VECNA!

Except ... there are no druids or necromancers in 4E. There are no noble barbarians to oppose the ur-Flan overlords, and there are no bards to sing of their exploits. If I tried hard -- really hard -- I could have cobbled something together, but the point is I shouldn't have to.

Instead, we ditched that campaign idea (saving it instead for our playtest of the Pathfinder RPG from Paizo in 2009) and went with a planar campaign instead (though using the classic Planescape universe rather than 4E's stripped-down cosmology).

The Dungeon Master's Respite

4th Edition show's its greatest improvements on the game master's side of the table. As I wrote earlier, 4E is considerably easier to prep for than 3E. This is because 4th edition's exceptions-based design truly shines with monsters; there's no longer any need to flip through the three core books looking for the rules, spells and special ability descriptions like there was with 3rd Edition. Now everything you need to run a monster is on the same page as the monster.

At the same time, there's a better mix of generic monsters, including non-monster species like humans, dragonborn, and elves. Almost all of the typical encounters I found myself statting out under 3E -- such as a battle with human rabble led by a cultist priest -- could be accommodated by the generic entries in the Monster Manual with only a handful of tweaks.

Statting NPCs and figuring monster abilities easily accounted for the majority of my game prep time in 3E. Under 4E I was able to write and stat out each weeks adventure in about an hour, rather than the 2-3 that was typical for low-to-mid level adventurers in the previous edition.

The Dungeon Master's Guide does a good job of explaining to new DMs exactly what their job is, and offers plenty of advice on how to do it. From a instructional standpoint, this is probably the best DMG ever.

Another nice touch is that it introduces ad hoc rules for skill checks and improvised attacks. It offers suggested difficulty classes for easy, medium and hard tasks, and corresponding damage. It's a great idea and it addresses the sort of issue that came up fairly frequently in our D&D game. Of course, it's also the sort of thing DMs have been winging for years, but it's nice to have a handy table to look things up on.

Going hand-in-hand with this are new Skill Challenges, which take a combat-like approach to social and physical challenges such as negotiating a treaty, searching for a contact in a city, or evading a patrol of orcs. The idea is that the GM comes up with a number of possible uses for skills tied to the task (such as Diplomacy or Streetwise when hunting down a contact) as well as some skills that just one work (like Intimidate, which simply scares the contact underground). The goal of the players is to achieve a certain number of successes before a certain number of failures, with the target numbers having been set when the challenge begins.

I've seen more than a few people complain that this reduces what should be a role-playing encounter to a series of dice rules, but for me, it didn't play that way. Instead, it played out as a framework that encouraged role-playing. Instead of some talk followed by a single sink-or-swim die roll, as often happened in 3E, 4E setup a lengthy encounter that players had to work their way through.

Skill challenges themselves are nothing new -- we've seen them in other games, as well as in Unearthed Arcana under 3E -- they're now an integral part of 4E. That's a good thing ... but it would have been a better thing if they'd gotten the rules right in the first time around.

Within weeks of 4E's released, fans found that as written, Skill Challenges doomed players to failure in almost every encounter. Wizards acknowledged the problem, and quickly released errata that dealt with it, but still it's troubling that this made it through the playtest process, and annoying that I now have to have a print out handy when running a game.

Aside from the problems with Skill Challenges and the "Ad Hoc" table, the DMG takes a major hit in usability with its substandard index. The 3.5 Edition DMG had a four page index, with the fourth page dedicated almost entirely to listing tables and sidebars that appeared in the book. The 4E index is a single page ... and has no table listings.

Actually, all of the 4E books suffer from this problem, as does their Star Wars line, so I can only assume that they've decided that sneaking in an extra page or three of content is more important than making their books more usable. I fundamentally disagree.

Rituals are design to address the inevitable complaints of those who liked 3E's Vancian magic. They succeed in rounding out arcane and divine caster's spell lists, but I found two problems with them. First, there aren't enough in the PHB; what's there is more of a representative sample. This was helped some what by an article in Dragon documenting more rituals, and I think we'll see even more when the 4E arcane casters supplemental rule book is released, but they should have been there from the start.

Second, rituals are too easy for non-casters to acquire. it takes only two feats for a fighter to acquire the feats needed to cast rituals ... which means that he can easily cast raise dead and other signature arcane or divine spells. Some may be fine with this, but for me, it further dilutes the traditional spell-casting classes.

Battle for the Tabletop

A lot has been made about the streamlining (if you like 4E) or dumbing down (if you don't) of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. While I think the game's made strides in reworking some of the more time consuming aspects of 3E combat during our playtest the game proved to be every bit as complex as before, just in different ways.

The sometimes cumbersome subsystems that always had people reaching for their rule books -- turning, grapple, trip -- are all gone, replaced with one-roll mechanics that aren't as detailed as 3E, but are adequate for the task at hand. Limiting how many abilities each player has access to -- particularly with the arcane and divine casters -- speeds things up by giving people less things to think about in any given combat (though it's important to note that in some cases -- like our dumb fighter friend -- some characters are more complex than their 3E counteparts).

The fact that each monster has its complete abilities in its statblock is a great help to the GM, and the time-savings there allow 4E to encourage a more diverse encounter build. You rarely have "jsut" a band of goblins, but instead have several different kinds of goblin, from melee fighters to arcane casters, augmented by wolves or worgs. Suggested warbands are listed alongside each monster in the Monster Manual, which is also a huge time saver.

Some have said that having these diverse mixes of monsters slows down 4E because there are no a lot more abilities to keep track of (then say, a more homogenous group of monsters) but in my experience the compact statblocks ran well. The biggest problem we ran into with monsters is that many of them seem to have too many hit points; several of my combats ran three or four rounds longer than they needed to, and by the end of the playtest campaign I'd started shaving hit points to speed things up. This was most obvious with the run-of-the-mill grunt monsters; the solo white dragon the party fought seemed to have just the right amount of hit points.

The place where complexity really begins to creep back into the game, first in dribs, then in a torrent, is with the mark mechanic. Half the classes in the game have some ability that allows them to "mark" a monster in some way (e.g. a fighter marks a monster, and compels it to attack him instead of someone else; a warlock 'curses' a monster, and gets to teleport anywhere on the battlefield when that monster dies). It's a mechanic ripped from MMORPGs, and it works well there because the computer's doing all the tracking. In the real world, it spawned a dozen tokens as we tried to figure out who had done what.

4E has done a good job of eliminating the "Save vs. Do Nothing for Three Hours" effect in 3E. This is when spells like confusion, hold person or sleep would knock a character out for a few rounds, which in turn mean that its controlling player got to twiddle his or her thumbs while everyone else fought.

In 4E, we didn't encounter any effects that behaved this way. Even sleep doesn't immediately drop those who succumb to it; instead it requires multiple saves over several rounds. The worst thing we encountered was an immobilize effect which prevented a character from moving, but still allowed him or her to act. Similarly, there were effects that reduce characters' effectiveness, but they almost always had something they could do.

A direct consequence of this, however, seems to be that there are an awful lot of effects and conditions flying around the board. I took to tearing up index cards, writing down the common conditions for that night's game, and handing them out as they took effect. It wasn't a huge amount of bookkeeping, but it did slow things down.

At-will, encounter and daily powers to provide balance between the classes, but also to try and avoid the "five minute work day" in which wizards and clerics would blow all their spells for the day in one encounter, retreat a safe distance, rest for 24 hours and do it all again. My group never had a huge problem with this phenomenon (with the exception of the exceedingly lethal Maure Castle) and we didn't have issues with it in 4E either. I found we got in about the same number of encounters we did in 3E, which is about two or three a session (depending on the amount of role-playing).

Finally, it's hard to overstate the role of teamwork in this game. Every class has abilities that feed off of other characters, and it's critically important for everyone to keep track of what's going so that a) they can take advantage of it and b) they can setup their allies as needed.

There was some of this in 3E, but in 4E its far more important. This is particularly true with the more powerful encounter and daily powers, which are scarce and there for valuable. Players get frustrated when they use one of these powers ... and then miss on their attack roll. While most of them provide some secondary effect for missing, it's still frustrating. The best solution is to work with one's friends to setup combat advantages that give the power a better chance of hitting; flank buddies were helpful in 3E; they're critical in 4E.

This level of teamwork does have its downside. It forces a more meta way of thinking; players need to know what their allies have available in terms of powers so that they can manipulate the battlefield accordingly (e.g. a warlock teleporting into position, a fighter drawing the attention some nearby orcs, a warlord providing someone with an extra action just when they need it). It tended to switch people from a first person to a third person perspective; one player (who ultimately disliked 4E) said this made combat feel more like a video game, and less like an RPG. I can't say I disagree.

One effect that I did notice growing more prominent as the game went on was the binary nature of encounter and daily powers. Unlike at-will powers, which are basically quick hits you can use whenever you want, once you use an encounter or daily power, it's gone. There's no way to say, stock up on fireballs because you know you're going to be fighting ice elementals or to evoke "hunter's bear trap" again to hinder an opponent because you missed the first time. I'd like to see some sort of mechanic, be it action points, feats or something else, that allows people a second chance with these powers (or simply allows them to stock up for a particular encounter). This problem is made worse by the loss of 3E-style scrolls and potions; there's no easy way to have an instant, drinkable version of a power handy in case something goes wrong. Magic items provide some of this, as many of them have powers of their own, but they're just as much one trick points as the players are.

In the end, low-level 4E combats ended up taking just as long as mid-level 3E ones (which seems about right since they have comparable numbers of powers available). Where 4E likely wins out in the long run (and we haven't tried this yet, so I can't confirm it) is that its level of complexity doesn't ramp up like 3E's does. I expect complexity to go up somewhat -- say 20%? -- as you advance through the tiers in 4E, but nothing like what you have with epic level characters in Third Edition.

D&D for Communists

Ultimately, it comes down to this. Forget about the exceptions-based game mechanic. Ignore the missing classes and races. Close your mind to the video game trappings. The single biggest difference between 4th Edition and its predecessors is that this game isn’t about you.

It’s not about your character, and the damn cool things he can do.

It’s about your group.

It’s about making sure that no one member of that team is significantly better or worse off than anyone else. It’s about a band of heroes coming together like a torch in the wilderness to fight back the horrors that lurk in the deep woods and under towering mountains, and living to tell the tale because of teamwork.

Every aspect of the game serves this fundamental, unifying theme. The hegemony of the group is the reason why wizards and clerics no longer have their deep spell lists, why rangers lost their animal companions, and why every class now gains powers and abilities in lockstep with one another. 3E paid lip service to balance among the classes, but 4E delivers the real deal. As a result, no one can complain that fighters dominate the game at low levels or that wizards are godly at high ones, and that rogues are doomed to be caught between the two. Everyone is equal and if you don’t believe it, you can look at the power progression chart on page 29 of the PHB.

In our group, this focus on egalitarianism and teamwork led one of my friends to deem the new edition D&D for Communists. Jokes of "No Fighter Left Behind" bounced around the table when we had our first character creation session. As for me, when I read through the rules I couldn’t help but think of Rush's "The Trees", their satirical anthem to equality through force.

The oaks truly have been cut down to make room for the maples.

There's a lot here that's been borrowed from massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, such as the aforementioned ability of paladins, fighters, rangers and warlocks to "mark" their opponents, the naming conventions of powers, and ability to reduce magic items to arcane dust for sale or use in other items which can be used to power new magic items.

But really, this MMO stuff is really just fluff masking the much bigger, more profound change to the game, which are the generification of the classes. While classes have different roles in the game, they share the same level of complexity. This change goes over well with those who folks who want their game -- and their characters -- focused on a specific subset of abilities, those who resented the apparent power that clerics and wizards accumulated at high levels (at the expense, the argument goes, of fighters, rogues and the rest of the martial classes), and those who never saw the point of 3E's extensive skill lists. For these folks, having core classes that offer two, or at the most three, different paths to power is a major improvement. So are the rest of the changes that focus a character's capabilities by limiting said characters options.

4th Edition fails with those who liked the crunchy bits of playing a wizard or cleric with a near-infinity of magic items and spells to choose from, as well as those who love to build exactly the character they had in mind when they sit down at the table. Those who saw 3E's infinite multiclassing as a strength rather than a weakness come into 4E, look at how many choices have been eliminated, and scream bloody murder as they fumble for their IDIC charms.

It's not a question so much of 4E being a bad or good game, as it is a radical difference in play styles. It's created a rift among D&D players, and while a few new supplements might help bridge by giving people more options, in the long run 4E will never satisfy the 3E diehards because it has a fundamentally different design philosophy.

Final Analysis

I like 4E, but I don’t love it. I think it’s a bad fit for traditional campaign settings, including Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms and works best with players who are tired of 3E, are looking for something with more focused character options, and are willing to reboot their campaign. The game system is less flexible than it’s predecessor, and unlike 3E players will find themselves forcing their campaigns to fit 4E’s play style, rather than the other way around.

If I were starting up a new D&D campaign with a new group of players, I might go with an Eberron 4E campaign (especially once the updated setting is released next year) but for now 4E’s off my active gaming radar.


"the lack of profession, craft and performance skills means that players looking to give their characters some tradecraft abilities are going to be out of luck in this game"

This isn't really true, though. Nothing's stopping you from having "I was a fisherman" as part of your background. The thing is, there's no need for game mechanics devoted to being a fisherman.

You were a fisherman? Great, you know how to catch fish. Maybe you know a little about boats, too. What's the purpose of a skill? Are you going to forget how to catch fish? Will you need to catch fish in a dangerous, non-take-10 situation? Will the challenge of needing to catch fish in these situations come up multiple times over the course of the campaign? Frequently enough to make it a useful skill when placed next to, say, Stealth?

If so, houserule the skill into existence. If not, you don't need it; it's background.

If you were a really good fisherman and you know a lot about the ocean, well, that's the Nature skill...

... except, mechanically I'd still be a fighter, wizard, etc. and just as superheroic as every other fighter, wizard, etc. in the game.

In 3E, if you wanted your character to start out as an average joe -- the farmer with a hoe on his shoulder, the fisherman working at the docks -- and work his way up to hero (even taking a level of commoner to do so), you could do that. It might mean you weren't as great as everyone else at your class skills, but hey, that's ok because it's part of your character concept.

In our Dark City campaign, we had a character who was a fisherman. Well, technically, he was a rogue, but he put all his skills into Profession (Sailor), Rope Use, Balance, etc. -- in short, all the skills that a sailor would have. Was he less effective than a typical rogue? Sure. Did his skill set accurately reflect his character (or at least, as accurately as he wanted)? You bet. And yes, he later died several dozen miles in land at the hands of a kobold king, but he was still a great character.

You're right of course -- you can say "my character was a fisherman before turning his back on the sea to become the avenging ranger you see before you", take a few ranks in Nature and be done with it. And folks who embrace 4E will be content to do that.

But my point with this review was that there's a contingent (and the majority of my gaming group is among them) for whom chalking things up to background and role-playing isn't enough. They want to be able to give their characters those ranks in Profession or Craft, and then actually use them. We've had both come in to play many times (including one memorable occasion when someone used their Profession (Artisan) to craft a stone replica of a party member, stone to flesh it, and then use it as a body duplicate for another party member (who, ahem, had been beheaded earlier that day for high crimes in Greyhawk ... but that's a story for another day).

Hell, in our Dark City campaign, my bard's been using Perform to earn gold and slowly work his way to fame and fortune among the city's bars and taverns. Out of the box, that's simply something I could not do in 4E because the skills don't exist. They might, someday, if the 4E designers ever get over their dislike for the class, but for now, it's a non-starter.

With a lot of this, I think it comes down to the default level of detail (and the level of heroics) you want on your campaign. 4E scales down the detail, and scales up the heroics. 3E does the opposite (though it can scale up the heroics just fine if you want it to, IMHO).

House ruling is certainly a solution, and if it were the sole deal breaker for 4E and my group, I'd likely do that. But honestly, it's just one part of a whole host of things that make it wrong for our Greyhawk.

I think it's important to note though that I don't think this makes 4E a bad game. It just makes it a game that doesn't do what I need it to do. If it works for others, as is or with tweaking, well, more power to them. :)

I'm still undecided about 4e myself, but I have chosen the one question I want to ask everyone who plays it.

If this game was not actually the "Official Dungeons & Dragon" Game (e.g. it was called "Epic Dungeon Journey" and D&D was still 3rd Edition) would you play it?

In our case, without all the D&D baggage attached, we'd probably be more likely to play it. A lot of my group's objections fall away when the game isn't trying to be D&D, and I suspect this would be true of others. If, for example, D&D isn't D&D without Vancian magic, then 4E is going to rub you the wrong way. But if it's just another sword-and-sorcery game with superheroic trappings, well, that might be more attractive.

After all, my group's happily embraced Mutants and Masterminds and Star Wars: Saga Edition, though I should note that in both those games the crunch/min-max/customization factor is higher than in 4E (in M&M, that's because of the point buy system, in Star Wars, it's because of the multiclassing and talent tree options).

A point buy version of D&D 4E might also go over well with my group.

That said, I can't think of any scenario in which I'd want to use it to run my Greyhawk game.

Having read through parts and play some 4E I find it's not for me. My group has played it twice and managed 3 TPKs in that time, obviously we're not "playing it right", and I don't like what feels like being forced into "play the way we want you to play". This also stretches to "You must have 5 players and 1 DM or else you're going to have to make these adjustments - look just get 6 people...". Some shine off the fun there if its just you and two friends and you don't want to play multiple characters. Bah humbug! :D

While you have been accurate, I feel it's a little disengenuis to compare years of 3e material to only the 3 core books of 4e.
The Adventurers Vault, Arcane Power, MM2, PH2 (with barbarians btw), Divine Power, Martial Power, and Manual of the Planes will all be released within the next 6 months. I think (hope) the options will expand greatly in the months to come. I realize that you can't review what you don't have.

They have said that they listened to their customers who complained they couldn't afford everything at once. By the time 5e roles they'll be just as much stuff as 3e had.

And you are correct about the characters all playing the same. Along these line I would like to point out that it'll be easier for players to try different classes. I think a slant of 4e is that you play your character to 30 then throw him away and play again as someone else.

The thing is ... I didn't have to wait with 3E. When we made the decision to convert to 3E (after a similar playtest campaign) the 3E PHB was enough to handle all of the characters we had playing at that point in time. I think that's legitimate to point out in a review, particularly for all those folks who are looking to convert their campaign, not start a new one.

If you compare the 3E and 4E PHB's class for class, race for race, 3E's going to come out ahead in terms of total character depth and complexity. But it should, because that's exactly what 4E is designed to fix.

Wizards made a design (and business) decision not to release certain races and classes in the core PHB for 4E. It was part of their overall design to limit character choices, because again, those choices (specifically the proliferation of prestige classes, and the crazy amounts of min/maxing that could be associated with them) were identified as part of the problem with 3E.

While we will see new classes as 4E rolls on (and hopefully new mechanics to go with them) I don't think there's a return to 3E's Vancian magic system, a significantly more extensive skill system, or truly diverse multiclassing anytime in the next three years.

This was all done on purpose; these are things that the 4E designers felt were deficient in 3E and there are plenty of folks who agree with them. I just don't see them going back on that stance in the game's first one or two years of release.

Honestly, I think the "more books = more options" argument in favor of 4E is a non-starter because of this. Yes, it's true you'll have more options, and some of the more glaring holes will be filled (e.g. bards, druids, barbarians).

A stronger argument, IMHO is to embrace the streamlining of characters, and point out how it can help a campaign, rather than trying to argue that 4E will rival 3E's options/complexity when it has enough books out which, IMHO, just isn't going to happen ... by design.

"This isn't really true, though. Nothing's stopping you from having "I was a fisherman" as part of your background. The thing is, there's no need for game mechanics devoted to being a fisherman."

And yet as a player I find this solution to be disastifying. Every character I played in 3e has had a craft or profession skill. From Moraim the dwarven cleric with Craft(Gemcutting), to Baldwin the Mage with Craft(alchemy) and Profession(bookbinding), to Alaric the Ftr/Paladin with Craft(weaponsmithing). I don't think Ken's example is that good, but with both Baldwin and Alaric there is a much more immediate game impact these skills have. What if I want to start making stuff? Non-magical stuff? What if I want to be the best craftsman in the kingdom? The DM can engage in some handwaivium and say "OK that's your background." In the end it makes it feel like I'm playing OD&D.


"...will all be released within the next 6 months. I think (hope) the options will expand greatly in the months to come."

I have to agree with Nuke on this. If the observation about character depth and customization in 4e vs 3e were limited to "there's no bard or druid or barbarian or gnome yet", then the appropriate reply is obviously "they'll be in the next few books". And that would be a perfectly legitimate response and release policy by WotC.

But the observation on charcter depth and customization goes far beyond which classes and races are in the PHB. The observation is that the classes IN the 4e PHB have fewer customization options than the classes in the 3e PHB.

It is an comparison of the STRUCTURE of the classes themselves, which is why further expansions in the 4e line won't address the issue. As long as the structure of the classes is the same (same # of at will, encounter, daily powers; expression of magic system as those powers and balanced against all of the combat abilities, the same auto-allocation of skill points) then the same deficiencies (IMO) exist.

That would be validating my decision not to move forward with 4e. I was someone who was on the bandwagon with 4E as the news was coming out, but then when we got glimpses of the final product, I lost interest. I got to see the books at GenCon (my friend brought his set), and that reinforced my decision not to adopt 4E. Your points above help to validate that decision.

I'm not saying 4E is a bad game, but it's not the game I want to play. It would basically be learning new rules (for the most part), so I'll find rules that allow me to play the game I want to play and learn those.

Those rules seem to be True20. Now I just need to get a campaign going!

Fraser Ronald

I'm curious about True20. I've got the PDF they gave away at Free RPG Day last year (or was it the year before?) and I'd love to give it a play test sometime. I'm looking forward to listening to your review on Accidental Survivors #35. [ding]

It's too early to say, but I wouldn't be surprised if my group ended up going with Pathfinder. Sticking with 3.5 has its advantages, but I think it's easier to recruit players for a game that's actively being published, and Pathfinder will have its own player community.

But we'll see. If nothing else, I'm looking forward to the playtest, even if it is a year away. :)

My group has converted to 4E and have been playing for a few months now, with me as the DM. Our opinions of it are mixed: one (an employee of Wizards) loves it, another loves it because of the warlord class, and another doesn't like it because his character (a warlock) feels 1-dimensional. I'm not sure how the two other players feel.

As the DM, I dislike 4E because it's difficult to establish the kind of story or atmosphere that I want. I find myself fighting the rules more than using them and have had to modify or tweak almost all of the monsters because they don't quite fit what I want. My campaign is intended to be more like Tolkein's Middle Earth in flavor than a high-fantasy world like World of Warcraft.

I find that prepping for 4E takes more time than it did in 3E (so I disagree with Nuke on that). But, again, this is because I don't want to use the monsters in the MM as is, so I have to stat my own. The problem is that the numbers in the 4E MM don't add up, so they're not useful as a guideline.

For example, a Halfling Stout (2nd-level minion) has a 15 Dexterity which means its Reflex should be 13 (+2 for Dex, +1 for level). It's listed as 14. Similarly, an Elf Archer (2nd-level non-minion) has an 18 Dexterity which means it's Reflex should be 15 (+4 for Dex, +1 for level). It's listed as 13 (lower than the minion's). There are many examples of this (human rabble have AC 15, but no Dex mod, no Int mod and no armor -- so where does the +5 to AC come from?).

I've also implemented a Profession skill because I also like characters to have some flavor and back story (if they want it). Basically, it's an Int-based skill that my characters get trained for free. That doesn't provide quite as much flexibility as 3E had, but it's better than nothing, in my opinion.

Ultimately, I'm disappointed in 4E both as a game and as a product (the 4E Monster Manual has less than 500 monsters; the 3.5E Monster Manual has over 800). I'm also resentful of the statements that come out of Wizards that suggest that 4E is the only valid way to play role-playing games, and which are surprisingly unimaginative. For example, according to the Races and Classes prequel to 4E published by Wizards, if your game uses a Profession skill, then "your game is probably not as much fun as D&D should be." Also, "there's no character who wants one [skill, such as Appraise] but wouldn't want both [skills, like Appraise and Sleight of Hand]".

If 4E wasn't called D&D, I'd still prefer 3.5E (I prefer IDIC over FDFC).

That's one thing I keep coming back to with 4e. The character classes seem to be all cut out from very similar cloth compared to 3e and 3.5. Another thing is the lockstep that characters advance in. Everybody has something special they can do at every level like political correctness run amok. Sure wizards are more hardy at low levels (what happened to the sorcerer??) but they are quite a bit less capable at higher levels. Oh, and I find it annoying that they lose spells as they advance in order to gain new ones. Sure wizards (what happened to the sorcerer????) are fantastically powerful at high levels but it was always a risk to become one since at low levels they are quite vulnerable. I admit, I have not actually played yet and perhaps I have not given the (borrowed from a friend) books a thorough going over to justify an educated review but for my money, I'd rather buy new copies of 3.5 books. As an aside to the reviewer, great job, well balanced review offering specific examples. Thank you!

Yeah, I can see how trying to build your own monsters/creatures would be problematic and time consuming in 4E, possibly even more so than 3E (though I can't really say either way, as I never tried it in either edition).

I think part of running 4E, for good or ill, is doing it the "4E Way (tm)", and I think part of that is using the Monster Manual like a big ol'box of monsters that you use to build your adventures. For my part, this is the way I've been leaning as a DM for the last two or three years, certainly since we had our second kid. I love tinkering and building out monsters, but I don't have the time for it any more.

But yeah, if you want to get under the hood you're probably going to bump your head a bunch of times.

First off, a very nice review, and many thoughtful comments--somewhat unusual in the firestorm of controversy surrounding 4th ed, it seems.

I have to wonder, though as I take a step back from it all, why WOTC decided to make the "business decisions" that they did. Clearly, 4th edition is a fundamentally different game than 3rd ed. (I notice that the review didn't mention the heavy online component that WOTC has trumpeted as a core component of 4th ed, nor did it comment on the fact that miniatures are truly a necessity to run any combat successfully--both dealbreakers for me and my group, and further examples of just how far away from the old D&D ideas 4th ed. has moved). That said, there are obviously lots of folks (both 3rd ed. devotees, and those who still play earlier versions--basically anyone who likes the flavor of those older versions) who will never accept what this edition has become.

As others have pointed out, WOTC will no longer be supporting 3rd ed (so far as I know, anyhow) and other companies are stepping in to fill the gaps.

What I can't understand is this: for many years, TSR managed pretty successfully to sell and develop both Dungeons and Dragons, and ADVANCED Dungeons and Dragons product lines. If you were one of the truly old-school grognards who cut your teeth on dwarves and wizards as classes not races, you could stick with D&D. If you wanted more options and detail, you went for AD&D.

So why in the world is WOTC giving up the revenue stream and potentially alienating customers by simply washing their hands of 3rd ed. when they could just rebrand it, or rebrand 4th ed. into something else, and reap the benefits of BOTH games? I suppose the official answer is that they don't want to dilute their focus, or their customer base. that doesn't wash, though: I'm not buying 4th edition products because not only will I not be converting over, but it is too difficult to kitbash stuff into 3rd edition (Which my group did for some time with 3rd ed. before we took the plunge and changed from 2nd to 3rd). I know I'm not alone. Why not support both systems?

I think that the Powers That Be look at the Basic/Advanced D&D era as an unnecessary (and confusing) splintering of the brand. The problem is, when they ditched Basic, they also got rid of the training wheels for the RPG industry. Even with its streamlining, 4E remains a crazy complex game, especially for newbies. A truly "Basic" version of D&D, properly marketed/produced by Wizards, would help bring in the new audience they say they're looking for.

As far as supporting 3x and 4x, honestly I'm still hoping for Wizards' "New Coke" moment where they decide to support the old 3E line. 4E splintered the base anyway; maintaining "D&D Classic" would allow them to bring those folks back into the fold. I imagine that only makes sense if the base is splintered something like 50/50. If it's more like 90/10 in favor of 4E, then it's likely not worth it for them (financially speaking) to bankroll such an alternative.

Which is why Paizo's doing it with Pathfinder. :) 10% of the D&D user base is more than enough for them (at least, that's what I infer from listening to Erik Mona discuss their plans).

With regards to miniatures, I didn't mention it in the review because it wasn't a huge deal for my group; we've been playing with minis since 2nd Edition, and I expect a majority of 3E gamers were using minis at their tables.

I should have thrown in a paragraph or three about the online offerings (or lack there of) but the review was already running long and, umm, I forgot. :)

I have been running a group for about 2 years now, we gained 2 or 3 to make up for the 2 or 3 we lost. I have by far the most experience with D&D going back to 1e and working my way as a DM through the years to AD&D and 3 and 3.5 and have had no problem learning my way through all of them.

However my group is another story. My wife played for a bit in AD&D and was with me through 3 and 3.5. She has the basics down but was by no means able to quote rules from the many books one could use. The rest of my players either played D&D once or never at all.

I started small with them, helping each make a character under 3.5 rules, helping pick feats across the 7 or 8 books, skills, spells, everything. And for a level or 2 they all seemed to get it. Then as we went along higher I got more and more questions of what to do next, what to pick, what feats, can I change feats to get this which I didn't know I wanted ect. Became a ton of work and of our 6 hrs once a month 2 were used in helping people get leveled or back on track.

Then steps in 4e. Simple to set up, simple to prep as a DM, and you have 4 powers, 6 around level 5 which can be changed after leveling. Each I made a card for so they have their powers in front of them, with their modifiers on so easy 1 roll add that number, if you hit roll again and add the 2nd and on we go.

To sum up, with my old group who played through the TOEE we loved the amount of lore and background you could stuff into a character and really have him grow. With my new group, 4e is exactly what they needed, simple and to the point. As our dwarf puts it, "I want to hit stuff with my axe, not talk him to death" and that's where 4e delievers.

I now run 2 campaigns, one with the 4e group and one with just 4 people in the 3.5 rules. Both are a blast to run and I look foward to many years of play from both. I've moved to the new but that doesn't mean the old has to retire yet.


It has been almost a year since 4th Edition came out. The supplements have stocked the shelves, the campaigns have been run, fleshed out, and dumped. They still have another 5 supplements coming out before year's end.

I am an avid 3rd and 3.5 ed player and DM of D&D, including Star Wars and d20 Modern. I also happen to be an avid d10 Old World of Darkness player and DM. I've been playing d10 games for almost 2 decades and d20 games for the last 6 years. I've DMed d10 games only the last 5 years and d20 for the last 6 years.

I originally purchased 4th Edition back on the second week of initial release of 4th Ed. I decided, this system seemed cool! I should totally try this! I got it home, spent days reading the core rulebooks and got excited because it seemed interesting.

I created a basic campaign intending on hoping to test out the system. Unfortunately, it went out of my control, the magic items were too simple, my players were pissed at how little character customization and PERSONALIZATION there was, and I as a DM wasn't controlling the game either.

Over the last year, I've definitely grown as a player and definitely as a DM. Recently, I decided, after having a VERY heated discussion with a friend of mine about 4th Edition, to try the game one more time and see if it could be fun.

The Result: Awesome fun with few problems, compared to the last campaign I ran with 4th Ed which ended just...horribly.

The one thing I have noticed, which you mentioned in your review, is that it really is designed to be simplistic, easy, and less complex in terms of game mechnical player customization.

Now, that's not a bad thing and actually, it's been kinda fun making things easier on me as a player and as a DM.

I have noticed that putting together encounters has been easier, quicker, and it gave me less headaches. Character creation goes much more smoothly because I don't have to wait for my players to put together their GIANT skill list or the Wizard putting together his GIANT spell list. Shopping for items is a lot easier because it is more openly focused on the different Roles and their individual classes. So instead of having a list of around 40,000 magic items with which ANY character can look at, the character now only has maybe 100 items he can look at. Granted, yes, that's not much, but it allows the character to be focused, becoming more customizable and therefore more personal.

The supplements DO add a lot more depth and customization to the game...PERIOD. It makes it much more enjoyable, allows for expanded rules, cleans up some problems with lack of character classes from the originals, and allows for more exciting combat or skill challenges.

In fact, I wouldn't recommend 4th Ed for 3rd Ed fanatics WITHOUT the supplements. They would simply go NUTS. The supplements really really really help. I cannot stress that enough. Sorcerers in 4th Ed are INCREDIBLY powerful. Even from 1st level, they do more damage on average in a battle than a sorcerer of 10th level. My players are currently 11th level and entering Paragon Tier. Already, they all do a minimum of 60+ damage to a single target within 2 rounds. Now, granted, I have 2 strikers, plus my NPC group in conjunction with the players of a Leader, Controller, and Defender..., but I still believe that 4th Ed is a good game.

I believe that Wizards made an interesting choice with this new design. Now, on one hand, the min/maxing customization of the 3rd Ed system is no longer here, which sucks for one of my players who LOVED to be able to customize his skill list or spell list to exactly what he wanted, but on the other hand...4th Ed offers a LOT more roleplaying opportunities, BECAUSE it speeds up the process of everything. My players have probably spent double the amount of time roleplaying than in a 3rd Ed game.

4th Ed was, in my opinion, designed specifically for the newest generation of America, which means MMO gamers and people with little time to spend on gaming. It was also designed, I believe, to be uniquely a Wizards of the Coast system. You have to remember that even 3rd Ed was still created by SOMEONE OTHER than Wizards. 4th Ed is strictly a Wizards of the Coast creation, which may be why they are putting so much stock into their own tools, books, and designs. I say they should be proud of themselves. I had a conversation today with some friends of mine in a 2nd/3rd Ed Werewolf LARP game in my local area about 4th Ed D&D. One of them is completely new to tabletop gaming so she only KNOWS 4th Ed at this point. I explained to her that she should stay with it, because if she went on to play 3rd Ed, she would realize how confusing, heavily complex, and heavily tracking-necessary it is.

She told me that she had trouble with 4th Ed and if 3rd Ed was even more complex, she would die. I told her though, if she wants to play 3rd Ed, to first get some experience playing different characters in 4th Ed, learn more about the heavier intricacies of the game, then move on to 3rd Ed.

I originally had a chance to play some of 4th Ed with the Star Wars Saga system, which I totally am in love with. I think it feels much more UNIQUELY Star Wars than previous editions, which as a completely nerdy totally geeky Star Wars fanatic whose been roleplaying Star Wars for almost 15 years, is TOTALLY awesome.

My really big issue with 4th Edition is that everything is so simplistic...that it ruins the fun of some game mechanics. My absolute favorite: magic items. I always felt that a good weapon or piece of armor made a character more unique, because it stayed with that character, it moved, died, lived, washed, touched, and loved by that character. But not anymore...yes, it still stays with them, but it's not the same. I can't make an awesome +5 flaming, bane undead, holy longsword of adamantine anymore at lvl 23. Instead...I have a +6 flaming longsword...and a bane undead mace...and a holy sword...and a adamantine short sword...You get the picture.

I have to have a million different magic items to do the SAME thing ONE item might do in 3rd ed. That REALLY bugs me, completely. I do like a lot of the way the system works, but I still have to house rule character creation, combat, certain powers, and even magic items...

All in All, I suppose my point is this: if you love having an incredibly complex and totally customizable character system then play 3rd Ed...if you like something a bit simpler that allows you more focus through non-game mechanics to roleplay, then 4th Ed might be your game. Either way, I am still a lover and fanatic of 3rd Ed, but I'm falling in love with 4th Ed too. That's the truth: play the game how you want to. I'm sure Wizards won't completely abandon 3rd ed unless they come out with something that can really replace 3rd Ed's IDIC system.

Thanks for posting this AWESOME review of 4th Edition D&D, I can't wait to show my "4th-ed hatin'" player. ^.^


When looking over the rule changes and lack of customization, my group of friends decided to not even try 4E and to even take a step back. We had not played D&D for a few years and decided that Birthright would make a fun campaign for multiple players. They choose to be regents that were mostly friendly with each other. What we have been using for rules are 2E with a lot of 3E things tossed in. For example; if you are profiecent with a weapon you can quick draw it. Gyrax said once that the DM does not need any rules and that is very much true.