Reboot your game with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

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 vestigial 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.

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