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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

D&D 4th Edition: A Player’s Perspective

by Ken Newquist / December 28, 2009

In November I had the chance to do something I’ve never done before: play Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Technically that’s not true – I’ve played D&D 4E plenty of times as a Dungeon Master, including my gaming group’s playtest campaign. But I’ve never sat at the table as a D&D 4E player.

The last time the Blackrazor Guild played D&D 4E, it was a paragon level playtest. I was the GM, and I found it incredibly frustrating. Our initial run had been at the heroic tier; paragon seemed to only add to the complexity of the game. Coupled with Player’s Handbook 2 classes like the wild mage, I felt like the game was getting bogged down in an endless stream of if/then statements. It was like spaghetti code turned into an RPG, and by the end of the session, I was done. If we played again, I wanted to be on the other side of the screen.

Revenge of the Giants

Flash forward nine months, and a review copy of Revenge of the Giants shows up on my door. My friend Jon volunteered to run it, and suddenly, I had my chance. I decided to build a character that countered all the things that drive me crazy about 4E:

  • “Black box” powers in which one action causes a random secondary effect that seems to happen entirely out of context (e.g. I hit my opponent, I gain a healing surge and everyone around me gets a morale bonus. Also, rainbows shoot out of my eyes).
  • Boolean trigger powers that fire on other players’ turns (e.g. if a monster becomes blooded, suddenly everyone gets a +1 bonus to attacks, a healing surge, or a pony … ok, maybe not a pony)
  • Mandatory team building is a huge part of 4E, as each class complements every other class. I get the appeal … but it’s not for me. If I wanted to play the RPG equivalent of one of those inspirational posters, I’d get a corporate job.

I exaggerate for effect … but only a little.  I also realize that others have pet peeves equally as long for D&D 3.x (I’m looking at you iterative attacks and you 3.x power creep) but these were the things that were really bugging me as a GM, and I wanted to avoid them as a player.

To that end, I choose to play an avenger.  Avengers are a new class from Player’s Handbook 2, and they’re the closest thing that 4E has to a lone wolf class.  Most of its powers are focused on vengeance … and a solitary vengeance at that. His powers grant him bonuses and special actions when attacking the target of his enmity, and while he  can work with the party … he don’t have to.

My character’s name is Quilleron (read more about him), and he’s an elandrin whose parents were slaughtered by hill giants long ago. He was raised by a band of warrior monks devoted to the goddess of roads, travel and commerce, and defending such from the depravations of those who would destroy them, and with them, civilization. 

Mechanically, I built Quilleron as a highly-mobile, highly skilled tracker who’d be utterly relentless in hunting down his foes. To that end I took the pursuing avenger build, which focuses on powers that let him focus on a single enemy. I chose elandrin because the class grants you a bonus skill and its racial ability allows you to teleport 5 squares once an encounter

I dabbled in mutliclassing by picking up the Defender of the Wild feat. This granted me access to a bonus skill (Survival) and the ranger’s quarry ability (which Quilleron uses as a per-encounter ability rather than per round). I turned to magic items to further reinforce his character concept. I’d planned on doing that by picking up a few ability-bumping items … but it turns out those are gone in 4E. Indeed, a lot of the ability- and skill-enhancing magic items I’d been expecting to find at paragon level (e.g. gauntlets of ogre strength) weren’t there.

Fortunately, there were a few made the cut.  Boots of Free Movement meant Quilleron would be able to escape from grapple and other entanglements, while the Cloak of Resistance increased his saves.  The Bracers of Defense gave him the ability to nullify an attack, while his Sylvan Cloth Armor provided a bonus to his wilderness skills. Perhaps the single most effective purchase was the Jagged Longsword +3, which had a critical range of 19-20 and which did 10 ongoing damage instead of regular double crit damage.  That sword killed quite a few elementals, so much so that I think I need to come up with a name for it...

Through the Looking Glass

It worked well. Quilleron played more or less the way I expected him to. He moves quickly, can escape from almost any unwanted entanglement, and can unleash a hell of a lot of damage on his opponents. There are a few tweaks I’d make, namely swapping out one of his powers for one that enables a healing surge, but I really liked how he turned out. Moreover, he had a good mix of nature and combat-oriented skills, allowing me to really get into my character during the fight. Sure, he comes across as a sort of Batman/Wolverine hybrid – complete with gravelly voice – but I think it worked.

As for the rest of the party, we need to work a little more on team work (or rather, optimizing our powers to work with one another). While we handled ourselves well enough, our group had two leaders: a human bard and a dragonborn warlord.  That’s not a problem, as they have different skill sets even if they have the same role, but the problem is neither took some of the leader-powers we needed. In particular, we came up short in “save enhancing” powers; D&D 4E replaces 3Es “save vs. do nothing for two hours” spell effects with a 55/45 save mechanic. For example, you may be immobilized, but on any given round you have a 55% chance of shaking off that effect.

Unless you roll like crap. Every round. For the entire combat.

This isn’t something that was on our radar because Star Wars: Saga Edition doesn’t have this save vs. do nothing problem; Force powers tend to be far more straightforward and immediate, and any round-to-round effects usually require a Use the Force check by the attacker to sustain. Combined with the fact that our heroes don’t fight a lot of Force users (unlike in D&D, where you’re often going up against mundane beasts and supernatural monsters with poison/magic/whatever powers), and the importance of the round-to-round saves simply didn’t occur to us.  It does now.

The other big change, at least from where I was standing, was that there wasn’t a lot of conditional logic scattered around the battlefield. There were a few such powers and buffs in effect, but I wasn't the only one who tried to minimize them; we'd all tried to keep the rampant conditionals in check.

Did we occasionally forget bonuses? Sure. Did we have a few markers to indicate who was bloodied and who was marked? Yes. But what we didn’t have were a dozen other little chits keeping track of other conditions, and we had few  “interrupt”-style powers that would trigger on other people’s turns. Those were the things that were grinding us down in our initial playtest, and by avoiding them we had a lot more fun.

As a player, I have to admit that the game didn’t feel much like D&D, at least not D&D as I’ve always played it. All of us had printed our character and magic item power cards, and the game was strongly reminiscent of playing Magic: The Gathering and HeroClix. That had been the case on the DM’s side of the screen as well, but there I had my old-familiar statblocks to keep me grounded to D&D. On the player side, my character sheet became a secondary reference, important when I needed to check my inventory, skills and basic attacks, but most of the time my attention was on my “hand” of power cards.

I also felt locked in by my character’s powers. Sure, they were cool and all, but they were also … the same. Unlike Force powers, there’s no chance to do really well with a power check: you either hit, deal damage, and initiate some sort of effect or you miss. If it’s a daily, you might do a little damage if you miss, but it’s still a miss.

Part of this may be my mind set, but I felt like my powers were locking me in to a particular course of action. It doesn’t have to be this way – the DMG includes an improvised weapon/damage/skill DC chart just for such ad hoc actions – but as a player, I usually focused on what was in front of me. That may change as we get more comfortable with our characters, and settle into the game longer term.

I think basic attacks are under-used – I’d really like to see Wizard grow the game in that regarding, bringing in some new non-power related feats from Saga Edition like Double Attack, Triple Attack, Rapid Strike (take a penalty to your attack to do an extra die of damage) and Running Attack (make a move before and after your attack). In short, give me some more combat options that aren’t directly tied to my powers.

I was surprised at how good Quilleron’s defenses were in relation to the party’s designated fighter/tank.  My armor class was as good as the fighter’s, which didn’t seem quite right given that my guy was wearing cloth, and the tank had heavy armor. Of course, I did burn a feat to provide a faith-inspired bonus to my AC, but still, it seemed like the tank should have been harder to hit.

It’s time to kickass and chew bubblegum

None of this is to say I didn’t have fun with D&D 4E. While it may not have felt like the D&D I’ve known and loved, it was still an enjoyable game. D&D 4E scratches a certain tactical miniatures itch, and it was a blast to be able to throw my vengeful character into battle after battle. My powers need a little tweaking, and I’d like the aforementioned feat options, but I had a lot of fun with Quilleron.  One of my chief concerns with 4E has been role-playing during combat – in my opinion it’s all too easy in 4E to fall back into the mechanics of the combat – but Quilleron’s single minded focus on revenge, combined with his gravelly voice and penchant for one-liners helped me keep my head in the scene.

Also helpful was the D&D Character Builder, which is best computer app that Wizards has ever created. Admittedly, the bar was set ridiculously low, but this app worked beautifully (albeit under Windows; it doesn’t work on the Mac).  Building my character was largely painless, though the app did threaten to overwhelm me with data by giving my options from every book published by default (I had to deselect it down to the two PHBs, the DMGs and Adventurers Vaults).  I liked the pre-calculated, printedable power cards, and I think the program played a huge part in how well our game ran (as several of us had used the app).  It was well worth a $9.99 one-month charge to build my character.

I am concerned about the future of D&D books though, or at least the powers-based ones. The character builder is so complete that it transforms books like PHB and Arcane Power into little more than out of date print indexes, useful for browsing powers when you’re offline, but inferior to the on-demand updates of the D&D Character Builder.

As someone who really likes books, I can see how D&D Character Builder could undercut the print product in a way that its Star Wars counter part (if there was one) never would; the Star Wars books have a lot more fluff and background content than your average PHB.

Has this latest foray into D&D 4th Edition changed my opinion of the game? Not really. The game’s strengths and weaknesses remain the same, regardless of what side of the screen you’re on. I like it for exactly what we’re using it for: occasionally monster-focused hack’n’slashes in which we get to beat up giants and save the world. It’s not my choice for a weekly game – Star Wars: Saga Edition or Savage Worlds are my first picks there – but it works well as a secondary game for my group.

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Comments

I think the learning curve of 4e is hidden. You found many of the problems with the game if you are new to it or don't play it often. However, in DMing and playing I've found that the issues you are raising about the feel of the game, the focus on the powers, and trouble with keeping track of things is a learning curve issue.

The problem with 4e if I can say there is a problem is that its easy to play hard to master.

A few thoughts you might try next time your playing:
1. Make additional cards for the "every man" and skill based actions available to you.
2. Create effects cards that allow you to put them on the table when an effect is in place. I use business card size.
3. Spend a bit more time with the players' handbook. It has tons of information and in my experience takes rereading after playing to begin to understand some of the capabilities.
4. Always describe your character's actions in terms of flavor. Shift 5. spaces and then attack is pretty dry. Flavor it up with a description of what your character is doing.
6. Share the character details with each other before play begins so you can become familiar with the capabilities of your allies before play begins.

I don't know, Dave. I don't believe being more familiar with the new system will significantly change the feel of the game or the closed nature of the Powers system.

1. Having a card for base attack will help you remember that you can do that, but how often is a base attack superior to a character's At Will power? And how does having a card for your base attack and/or for any non-combat abilities make the game seem less like Magic?

3. Being more familiar with the powers doesn't go a single step further in making them more interesting or make them seem any less arbitrary.
As for spending more time reading the PHB, well sure, that's going to help be more conversant in character abilities and the interaction of different abilities but the zero 'fluff' nature of the PHB (I HATE that term, btw. As if tantilizing and inspiring descriptive text is unimportant. That's what D&D was BUILT on, for Cuthbert's sake! Gary would be insulted.) means that re-reading it won't help to change the feel of anything or help rationalize anything any better.

4. Of course we describe our combat actions with flavor. We've only been playing D&D for .... well 31 years in my case. Ken is close to that too.

6. Sometimes it's appropriate to discuss character details during creation, and sometimes not. In 4e it's damn near vital to survival and the players all discussed things in this case. The game design choice to STRONGLY encourage group dynamics is not a beginners learning curve issue. It is absolutely a game design choice and as such it has legitimate pros and cons.

IMO, Ken's comments are entirely appropriate and accurate. And not uniformly negative either (unlike all of my own analysis of 4e).

@ EvilGenius I think Dave has a good point about describing your actions; while we often did that in 3E, I think it's all too easy to fall out of that habit when playing 4E because (IMHO) it's so much more of a tactical miniatures game (as evidenced by the shift/pull/push terminology, which really shifts my own mindset toward HeroClix and away from role-playing).

That said, I think the terminology can get in the way sometimes, because it *is* so gamey. What is a "shift" in the real world anyway? Sneakily stepping past my opponent? Running so fast he can't even react to me? I suppose you could hand wave and say it's what ever I want it to be ... but then we're back to the black box stuff that most of us (meaning most of the Blackrazors) disliked.

@ Dave Skill summary cards could definitely help; one of the challenges I've encountered with 4E is understanding where they've reshuffled common skill actions now that they've eliminated the Knowledge and Perform skills. But Evil Genius is right too; adding more cards is going to reinforce even further CCG aspects of the game. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it carries the game further away from its RPG roots.

Regarding fluff, I've never viewed it as a bad word; I like a good balance of fluff and crunch in a game, and honestly, I think that's where the 4E supplements like Arcane Power have fallen down for me; there isn't enough fluff. That said, other books -- like the 4E Eberron Campaign and Player's Guide -- are far more to my liking. That's why, despite my occasional misgivings about 4E, I'm looking forward to the Dark Sun campaign guide.

Mechanically, I'd like to see the introduction of talents -- maybe in a variant PHB along the lines of Unearthed Arcana. I'd like to see more ways to distinguish characters and builds from one another, and I think talents would help with this. They'd also help with providing some non-power options on the battlefield.

I started playing D+D in the sixth grade. I'm fourty years of age and it is sad to admit that the D+D spirit is dead in me. It survived the dark years of unknowing fear and satanic rumor. It thrived when 2nd ed. arrived. 3rd ed was scarey at first, but I warmed to it and loved its flexability of character design and (high level play has always been complicated) ease of use. FourE is a diferent game and cannot inspire my imagination in the same way as 1-3.

Bob,

Sorry it took me a while to get back to this thread.

We are about the same age. I actually didn't start D&D until 7th grade and turn 41 this week. I still remember when my dad opened the Red Box and DMed one adventure. He lost interest pretty quickly. Of course from then on I was hooked.

During those days it was hard to find D&D books (as you know) and harder still to find people who had enough of them to play the game. But by the time I reached 9th grade I had scrounged the money together to have a set of books and dice. I still have those books in the garage.

Having been around the 4e game with my own daughters as they are in 4th and 7th grade now I'm made aware of how much they get that same feeling from 4e as I did from the Red Box and the AD&D game. They write lengthy back stories with elaborate plot lines and they comb through the character build figuring what optimizations they can make. So my experience of 4e is that its often based on our perceptions of the game rather than the mechanics. They thrive in the current system just as we did in the past.

I still find parts of 4e a bit annoying and I don't think I can be completely sold on the structure of skills and skill challenges they just seem to much like a dice rolling experience.

And I think its totally appropriate to go with any game system you desire and like. In fact a part of me wants to get the old system out with all its flaws and such and play it again. Of course another part of me wants to find my Role Master stuff and play that again.

I wish you all the best.

Guys.... nowhere in the 4E game do you stack your cards, place them on deck..tap/turn/bow them... place counters on them... etc? CCG? REally? Are you serious?

Does anyone remember the old Spell cards for your spell book, For clerics and Mages? 4E isn't too far off. Hell I use to make my own flashcards for my spells and powers just to keep track of what I had used and not used during the adventure.

4E does make this necessary for all classes. I have issues with 4E but it's about the inability for the martial classes to use their special moves constantly. I mean, if you know how to shield bash... you can only do it once in an encounter? BAH!

I DO love the fact that mages and sorcerers have the ability to 'not' run out of spells.. OMG.. low level mages SUCKED!!!

I remember making a Wild Mage in 2nd Edition... I got my hand on a Rod of absorption. That was kewl. I got that PC up to ArchMage level. There's a spell that can absorb spells that target you and you can instantly use it on your turn/next turn to cast a spell in your memory for free of the same level or lower.
Oh, I always kept a Nahal's reckless dweomer memorized.

Enemy spell caster zaps me.. I absorb it... use to power a spell OR use to power a Nahal's and try to use nahal's to cast a spell i know that isnt memorized. Muuahahahahahah! I always rolled well when i was rolling for Chaos rolls. LOL

So the point is.. 4E has made cleric, mages and other spell casters a bit more utility and useful with At-will powers. But I dont think they did well on cutting down on Warrior abilities to hack-n-slash. but they made it equal.. shrug.

It didnt squelsh my love of RPG. The cards are useful tools to keep your abilities handy. You still have to RP and do skill checks for non-combat and those dont use your 'cards' at all!

btw.. I am 39... I started when I was around 7-8ish? I got that first solo adventure and my mom has regretted it ever since. hahaha

I still play a 2nd edition Ravenloft game, I just finished a 3.0 homebrew game, and I am starting a Darksun 4.0 game. I'm making a Fighter with a Templar kit. a Praetorian Guard. This should be fun! :):)

First lvl wizards are a wonderful role-playing opportunity. Use that speel wisely, you only get one shot. I also like warriors vs. golems. When the standard bash does not work, a player is forced to find another way.

I'm not saying that 4E is a bad game, although it is a bit to much akin to a CCG for me. It Seems to force players to fulfill roles that the game has preordained. I like the complexity and freedom of 3E. I like being able to play pyromaniac druids of abnormal psychology.

@ Bryan Johnson I have to disagree with 4E mages; they feel very much like sorcerers to me, and are far, far less flexible than their earlier incarnations.

I'm a big mage guy, always have been, and the limitations of low-level wizards were always more of a feature than a bug to me. I liked how it forced me to think ahead, to reply more on my non-spell resources. For example, "scribe scroll" was a huge feat for me, because it meant my wizards could stockpile spells for a rainy day. It also meant I had a tremendous amount of flexibility when it came to adventuring, because my characters weren't one trick ponies; hell they had entire herds of tricks. :)

Now I realize that 4E has rituals, which accomplish some of the same things that the utility spells in 3E did, but it's not the same. Partly because everyone (including fighters) can have access to rituals if they really want, and partly because even with rituals I can't achieve the same degree of flexibility and customization that I could under 3E.

I look at Merwyn, my 13th level wizard who survived the return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and who was known for his expansive collection of spell books, scrolls and potions, and I just don't see how to recreate him in 4E.

Merwyn would have been playable under 1st or 2nd edition with minimal tweaking. He might not have had the handcrafted wands he made in 3E, but he'd look similar. It is disappointing to me that this kind of utility character just doesn't fit in 4E.

I've always been partial to spell casters, all the way back to 1978 when I started playing. :)

I generally agree with all of the comments here (ESPECIALLY with Maylock having abnormal psychology!!).

I just didn't feel enough continuity in the 4e spell system. Like Ken, I loved spell casters of great utility, though I preferred clerics and he prefers mages. :)

I also don't like the way 4e 'equates' spells with martial abilities. There are a lot of instances in which a spellcaster's 'power' is very similar to a martial character's 'power'. This is also a design choice for 4e but imo it makes magic seem much less ..... magical.