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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: How I learned to stop fearing and love D&D 4E

by Ken Newquist / June 6, 2008

Ok, maybe "love" isn't the right word. "Tolerate" might be better, but the sentiment is the same: for the first time in months, I'm looking forward to my gaming group's playtest of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

First, some background. My gaming group's been together for 12 years and we've played in the World of Greyhawk that entire time. We've had a bunch of different campaigns, adventuring in our home grown city of Obsidian Bay, dealing with the rising threat of the Temple of Elemental Evil, and liberating the Grand Duchy of Geoff from the giant menace, but all that time we were in Greyhawk.

So yeah, our gaming group has some serious history.

We started the game started using 2nd Edition D&D in 1996, then moved to 3.0 in 2000, and finally jumped to 3.5, so we're no strangers to upgrading editions. But 4th edition isn't like those others; while earlier editions hewed close to the traditional fantasy lines of Tolkien (with the occasional scaling up and down of power levels), the new edition takes its inspiration from massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and anime-influenced console RPGs like Final Fantasy. It's an entirely different take on fantasy, and it's not something that fits well with a traditional setting like Greyhawk or even the more high-powered Forgotten Realms.

That disconnect, combined with Wizards of the Coast's cancellation of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, the slash-and-burn redesign of the core rules, and a constant stream of "your game sux0rs; our game ROCKS!" coming out of Wizards R&D has done a lot to turn my gaming group against 4th Edition. It's generated a goodly amount venom over the last few months, as well as a general sense of disillusionment with the new edition. It might be called D&D, the sentiment goes, but it's not our D&D. Any merits of the new system were lost in the grumbling.

And then I had an idea.

The Rise of the Ur-Flan

The World of Greyhawk's history stretches back thousands of years. It's seen ages of great magic, terrible cataclysms, and the rise and fall of some of the greatest villains Dungeons & Dragons has ever known. One of these, the lich Vecna (yes, that Vecna) rose to power 2000-3000 years before the current timeline for our campaign. He was the most powerful necromancer among a tribe that venerated such dark magics. That tribe was known as the ur-Flan.

It was 4E that got me to thinking about this ancient tribe. There's a lot I like about 4E, but the single biggest hangup my group has with it is what the system will do to our existing Greyhawk game. There's no way, as the game exists now, to make it work with Greyhawk. But what if we didn't try and shoehorn it? What if we cast our minds -- and campaign -- back in time to an era where things were very different, where the super-powered nature of 4E would complement, rather than destroy, our game?

Suddenly, possibilities opened to me. 4E's Eldarin become high elves from the modern-day kingdom of Celene while it's "elves" become wood elves from the various forest kingdoms in the Sheldomar Valley. The demon-spawned tieflings and wyrm-birth dragonborn can be explained away as exotic races that went extinct during the Twin Cataclysms. Those wanderlust 4E halflings? Well, maybe that's the way halflings were before they set down roots (indeed, perhaps their wanderings are why they set down roots). The missing gnomes? Well, maybe they haven't emerged from the Underdark yet.

Ideas for the classes manifested themselves as well. The warlord screams to be someone from one of the northern nomad clans. Warlocks, with their infernal pacts, could be powerful members of the ur-Flan (who were reputed to be powerful summoners as well as necromancers). And those pesky player characters ascending to godhood in 4E? Well, hero gods are not unknown to Greyhawk ... as illustrated by the fact that Krovis came from this time period.

Yes, I thought, there's a lot of potential here. And done right, it could spawn a lot of good stuff for our original D&D 3.x campaign (e.g. a fortress serves as a major battleground in the ur-Flan campaign; in the original one the players return to the ruins looking for some lost treasure or relic).

Grokking the 4E Ruleset

The rules themselves have a certain appeal to me. Members of my group still grumble about them, but the shift from a resource management game to a strategic management game (e.g. "I can cast this spell x times per day" vs. "I can use my cool ability at least once a combat") isn't necessarily a bad thing. As others have pointed out, giving the wizard the ability to cast a minor energy blast at will, doing 1d10 points of damage, certainly makes more sense then having him run out of spells and have to fall back on that trusty light crossbow (which oh so popular in the literature). After playing my Book of Nine Swords swordmage character in our Greyhawk campaign, I've got a decent feel for how a powers-based ruleset is going to work at the table, and while at first glance it feels like it would be limiting -- and indeed, it seems like clerics and wizards arcane/divine diversity has been largely nerfed -- I think the 4E ruleset will deliver a more rounded, more structured campaign.

That said, our gaming group is chaos incarnate. We like diversity. We like oddball characters. We like having a toolset that lets us build anything we want, and at least at first glance it seems like 4E is taking away a lot of our capacity to tinker and hack at the rules to come up with what we want. We've had campaigns that began with four of six characters as clerics. We've had others start with four of six as rogues. 4E just isn't built to support that kind of approach; it assumes the party will have a mix of utility characters, with each one having a specific role to fill. I don't know that it will fit our style of play, but I'm interested in trying it out and seeing what happens.

After reading through the 4E Players Handbook over the last few days (I got a review copy), the single biggest challenge with using 4th Edition in the Ur-Flan setting is its lack of a "primal power" source, which translates to having no barbarians or druids. At the same time, there are a minimum amount of summoning spells, and no undead-creating necromancy spells for clerics, wizards or warlocks. It's hard to run a campaign in which the big bads are necromanatic druids when the rules you're hoping to use do not support necromancers or druids.

I think there are still ways to get this to work, but it's going to take some serious banging on the rules to get the campaign we want. And it says something about 4E that you can't run what should be a straight-forward fantasy campaign out of the box.

Campaign Alternative: Planetorn

The alternative to the ur-Flan campaign is my Planetorn campaign setting idea, in which a great and terrible reality storm is tearing through the Alternative Material Planes, and sending huge hurricanes of destruction spinning off into the Elemental and Outer Planes. Each character would come from either a destroyed or threatened plane, and would be on an epic quest to figure out what is causing this storm ... and how it might be stopped.

Rather than be constrained by the classical fantasy setting of Greyhawk, players would be able to chose any racial and class combination they wanted, because somewhere in the multiverse, that particular combination is the norm. I'm as excited about this idea as the ur-Flan one, and ultimatley I think it may prove to be the better 4E fit because we won't be trying to force it to fit our traditional expectations. We'll be able to run the game engine at full blast, and see just how well it can handle the challenges we throw at it.

And then it was Game Day

So today is finally the day when D&D 4th Edition is released, and my gaming group will be gathering to eat Chinese food, read our 4E books, and decide what we want to do next. I'm sure there's going to be plenty of grumbling, and no small amount of heated debate, but I'm also hopeful we'll get at least 4-6 sessions of 4E game time out of this, and maybe -- if we like it well enough -- we'll get a good six month run. I can't say we'll ever convert our 3E campaign to the new edition -- it's just so different from everything that's come before -- but I am looking forward to the ride.


Nice review. I had the same concerns viz a viz the missing Necromancy and such, and I am thinking I will get around that by making a lot of the Necromantic 'create undead' and Summoning type spells as Ritual Magic.

That could work. Spells are one area where they could have given us some conversation guidelines; as you say a lot of the 3E PHB's spells could have become rituals with a little tweaking (and probably will).

Do you really need ALL the hundreds of D&D 3.x spells?

My observation was that some spells (group flight, Death Wards, ...) were "enforced" by certain monster types. I don't see the neccessity for things like these right now.

D&D4 has pretty much eleminated (or at least simplified) the "boring" stuff that took up valuable resources.
Like: If a D&D 3.x wizard wanted to "show off" by magically lighting the fire and flavor the food (classic Prestidigitation) for three rests (morning, midday, evening), he could waste his whole alotment of Cantrips if he was level 1. And even at level 20 he would still have used up 1/4 of all the cantrips he had this day.

I expect lots of new options (like new Rituals) in about 2 weeks (when the first GSL stuff can be published)

The short answer is ... yes.

The long answer is ... not everything no, but more than what we've got. There's a sense among the group that the powers available to the wizard (indeed, to most classes) are too combat focused. There are some utility/exploration-style spells (like feather fall) that seem underpowered for the slot they take up, but either don't work as rituals (10 minutes to cast feather fall would be problematic when you're falling down the mountain) or are underpowered relative to other powers.

For example, the second level utility powers are expeditious retreat, feather fall, jump and shield. Under 3E, my wizards would have all of these powers, and could pick and choose which ones to memorize based on what the likely encounters of the day are (climbing a mountain? Go with feather fall and jump. Charging into battle? Seems like shield's in order).

In 4E though, you don't have the same kind of flexibility. Sure, you get more powers than everyone else, and can pick the one you want on a given day, but it's a lot more difficult to make a "utility" style mage than a "war mage" or "controller mage". Even if you take the "expanded spellbook" feat, you're still only getting more attack spells, not more utility spells.

I think it comes down to a style-of-play thing -- what 4E considers boring, a lot of my players consider essential. :)

So if you liked playing spontaneous casters in 3E (e.g. sorcerers) then 4E works just fine. But if you liked playing a wizard with a deep and diverse selection of spells, backed up with a smattering of scrolls and potions, then 4E really isn't for you.

That may be addressed somewhat when third-party supplements start coming out, but I don't think it will address the core issue of wizards having a greatly reduced repertoire of spells to bring to a particular encounter, be it role-playing or combat-based.

In the playtest, with 1st level characters, it certainly felt like the wizard was one-trick pony (more so than the other classes). That said, 3E certainly has its limitations as well, particularly when you're playing a 1st level mage who can only cast one or two spells, but at the same time, he has a lot more options at first level, and the potential to bulk up his combat abilities with scrolls.

Ultimately, I think it's a difference in play style between those who like a resource management approach (like in 3E) or a tactical combat approach (like 4E).

By design, 4E is eliminating most of the resource management aspects of the game in an effort to speed up the game. It's a sacrifice that has to be made, IMHO, in order to really speed up the 3E rules, but it also means that it's going to turn off people who were really into that aspect of the game in previous editions.

If you want 4e style wizards in 3e, you can easily make it so with a little modification.

Give each spell in 3e a speed factor equal to its level in rounds, and allow wizards to cast all spells in their spell books whenever they want. eg. a magic missile would require 1 round to cast and a fire ball would require 3 rounds. Make up feats that allow you to reduce this speed factor and low level spells can easily become "at will" spells, while high level spells effectively become short rituals.

The consequence of this is that wizards are not weak at low levels, and high level wizards need fighters to prevent spell castings from being disrupted. The advantage of this rule over 4e is that wizards can keep all of their spells. Its a win-win mod.

Thanks for the suggestion!

Unfortunately, the thing my group probably hates most about 4E are the wizards, so I don't think that's something we'd want to backport. :)

In any case, I think this solution would be problematic at higher levels -- few, if any, of our 3E level combats go longer than a 6 or 7 rounds, so using the "level = rounds to cast" mechanic, a wizard could spend the majority of the combat waiting to cast one or two spells.

I don't think our group suffers from the "wizards are too awesome!" problems that a lot of groups seem to have, nor too much of the "low level wizards suck!" mentality.

Our single-class fighters (the few that we have) tend to be very good at what they do, but most are multiclassed into another basic or prestige class. As such, they're able to hold their own in combat pretty well. Also, our wizard/cleric characters usually take full advantage of their item creation feats (scrolls, potions, etc.) and combined with a few magic items, that usually keeps everyone happy.

IMHO, if you want to emulate 4E's "always ready" wizard, something like the reserve feats from Complete Mage are probably the way to go (I think that's the right source book, but I don't have a copy so I'm guessing).

I like the idea of the Planetorn campaign, it has the added bonus that when they switch back to the d20 rules for 5E you can end the campaign by "discovering" what was so broken in the Multiverse. It actually reads like a comment on the 4E system itself, "and how it might be stopped."

Good point.

The Planetorn approach could very easily be used either to re-write the rules of reality, thus enabling a 4E campaign in an existing campaign setting, or represent a fight against the threat of a 4E universe, in which case "winning" means you go back to playing 3.5. Or Pathfinder. :)

Great idea to tesstdrive the new ruleset.

And 4e CAN support necromantic druids, as long as they are just the enemies.

There was a severe paradigm shift from D&D 3.x (and other editions) to D&D 4 and so far I can't say that this shift is a bad thing. (More about that soon on my blog)

I expect many groups to split their activities to two distinctly different parts.
One that continues D&D 3.x (or converts to the Pathfinder RPG) where you include all types of mix and matching abilities but gets quite a lot of problems at higher levels and another that comes together for a fast and easy D&D4 game where you don't have to manage your character concept during character generation but you manage your abilities during the game.

I'll continue with at least 2-3 adventures in the "War of the Burning Sky" adventure path and will see where to go from there.

It is a huge shift, and I think it's that dissonance between what came before, and what's being published now that's causing my group to debate 4E so fiercely. As others have said, they didn't just slaughter sacred cows in 4E, they took their corpses and smeared the innards all over the insides of the temple.

Certainly 3E killed a few cows when it was released (Thac0, crazy saving throws, rogue skills) but all in all the system was an extension of what came before. With its exceptions-based rule set and unified power system, 4E is a very different beast from historical D&D.

In truth, if they'd released something like Star Wars Saga Edition for D&D 4th edition, I think my group would have gone along with it. Saga feels like an evolutionary upgrade to the d20 system as we knew it; 4E feels like a corpse-riddled revolution.

That said, I know for some people, hell for *a lot of people* that isn't a bad thing. They're ready for something new, or frustrated enough with 4E that they're happy to run a more streamlined, more internally-consistent system.

As for me, well, I'll see how things shake out in the playtest, and reserve judgement until then. I could very easily see us dropping D&D entirely for a year and playing Star Wars instead, returning to 4E when the core classes have been fleshed out with PHB II and the rules have been augmented with third-party releases.

I will say that I'm very interested to see how they adopt 4E to the modern era; it strikes me as being a system that could work well in the modern fantasy genre.

constant stream of "your game sux0rs; our game ROCKS!" coming out of Wizards R&D has done a lot to turn my gaming group against 4th Edition.

Thank you! I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I think I'm the only one in my gaming groups that cringed at the hype, anyway. One of the fellows in my group works at Wizards and is a 4E evangelist, so we get that a lot.

Thank you also for your review. I have the same concerns that you and your group do and, again, I seem to be the only one in my group that does. So it's validating to hear someone else with the same opinions.

I too like off-type characters and non-standard campaign worlds. So, it's becoming a bit of a challenge to work with 4E (I'm starting a campaign and am also having to "bang on the rules" to tell the stories I want to tell).

I suspect that Rituals will be the solution to the wizards' lack of spell selection problem, but I'm not sure how that's going to play out either. Given the small selection included in the PHB, I'll probably have to make up my own rituals, or wait for Wizards to release a supplement with the ones my group wants.

I'm glad you liked it. I've got some follow up posts on 4E elsewhere on Nuketown and I'll be posting more formal reviews of the new edition and the three core rule books over the next two weeks.

You're not alone in being in a group that primarily likes D&D; I've heard from (and read blog posts of) a bunch of folks who love the new edition, and never got the negative vibe my group got. Then again, we're Greyhawkers, a sect long maligned within the old TSR, so a certain amount of negativity is to be expected. :)

Rituals could help, but man, they are expensive. That's fine within the confines of 4E, but trying to convert my campaign's magic system to comply with the new edition ... [shakes head]. And I think that's the biggest thing with my group: a good chunk of our players (and I can't say I disagree with them) feel that Wizards is saying "This is our One True Vision of D&D. Accept and comply" where as 3E was more of a toolkit for building whatever campaign setting you wanted; certainly Greyhawk and a certain style of play was implied, but it was easy enough to scale the system up and down to accommodate almost any fantasy campaign setting.

With 4E, that process is reversed: the setting is converted to the rules, the rules aren't converted to the setting. And no matter how much I like certain aspects of 4E, that particular point bothers me.

I read over your material, and I've gotta say, I like what you wrote. It's alot more refreshing than the usual "i hate 4e cuz it sucks." banter. Neither me, nor my group has had a problem with 4E yet, merely because we're all about having all the party roles filled. One thing you wrote that piqued my interest was how you can't create necrotic druids and undead summoning and that sort of junk. Well, just as a friendly word of advice, it is possible to do so, just write it out as a 10 min-1hour long ritual with an appropriate level, and bingo, an undead summoning Cleric/Druid/Whatever. Thanks again for your look at 4E :D

I'm glad you liked it; I think roles were ultimately one of the things that doomed 4E with the majority of my group. While I'm sure there are exceptions to the rules, 4E's a game designed to work well with a diversity of roles. It's all about niche protection and team work; everyone has their job to do, and needs to do that job in order for the group as a whole to succeed.

And my group? Well, when we started Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil our party was comprised of four clerics, a rogue and a bard, so you can see where there might be a disconnect.

To a certain extent, given the nature of powers in 4E, the whole druid/necromancer thing is really just a question of flair; change the flavor text, and you're halfway there. Creating rituals is definitely one way to handle this (and I'd like to see 4E continue to develop rituals along these lines).

I should also say that in the time since I wrote this, Arcane Power and PHB2 have been released, giving us summoning spells and druids. Open Grave is also out there, but I don't know what necromancer options it introduces. In theory, it would be a lot easier for us to run an ur-Flan campaign now that it would have been a year ago, but ultimately the issue now is more style of play; 4E just doesn't fit the way my group rolls.