D&D 4E Annotated Playtest: Goblin Smackdown

My gaming group held our first 4th edition playtest this week, pitting a group of first-level characters against a wandering band of goblins. The battle took place among a couple of low hills, with the adventurers surprising a band of goblins eating roasted dog around a guttering campfire. There was no role-playing component to the encounter; this was strictly a mechanical test.

Setting up the Skirmish

Player Characters

  • Lance: Evadra, Eladrin Warlock 1
  • Cory: Thrax, Dragonborn Wizard 1
  • Nate: Haagalaz, Human Fighter (Wizard) 1
  • Brendan: Gavin Ratfoot, Halfling Rogue 1
  • Bob: Klav’Druk, Dwarf Paladin 1

This build is based on what people decided to play; all of these characters will be appearing in our limited-run Planetorn campaign for 4th edition. There were no “leader” role characters (clerics, warlords) in this playtest, but we do have someone playing a cleric in the campaign. It actually makes for a good playtest: what will happen to the group when it’s missing one of the game’s core classes?


  • 2 Fire Beetles (brute)
  • 4 Goblin Cutters (minions)
  • 1 Goblin Blackblade (lurker)
  • 1 Goblin Warrior (skirmisher)

This is a Level 1, 500 XP build based on a slightly modified version of one from the 4E Monster Manual. The original version had two warriors, I swapped one of them out for four minions because I wanted to see how they held up in combat.

The Battlefield

The battlefield itself was comprised of a flat area with three small tiered hillocks averaging about 15 feet in height, and counting as difficult terrain to climb.

The Battle

The combat begins with adventurers surprising a nest of goblins camping in some hills. The party moves closer, and the fight begins in earnest with the dragonborn wizard Thrax launching a magic missle at a fire beetle. He rolls to hit, succeeds, and does 2d4+Int damage.

Whoa … he has to roll to hit? With magic missile? That’s different.

Doesn’t the goblin have to roll a saving throw? Nope; saving throws are all but gone. Instead, he’s got a “Will Defense”, like in Star Wars: Saga Edition

The fire beetles respond to this heroic incursion by closing with the attackers. One climbs the nearby hill and blasts Evadra with a fire spray, doing 14 points of damage, and bloodying her.

The fire beetle’s fire spray has a chance to regenerate each round; if the GM rolls a 5 or 6 on a d6, it’s back. Opinions varied on this; some thought it was cool, others lamented the loss of the standard 1d4+1 mechanic from pevious editions.

“Bloodying” Evadra meant she was reduced to less than half her hit points. Some powers, class abilities, and monsters key off this milestone, but in Evadra’s case, it had no in game effect.

The human fighter Haagalaz shoots his crossbow at a fire beetle, missing, then runs up toward the goblins.

Running in 4E means that characters get to add two squares to their movement. However, in doing so they grant “combat advantage” to their enemies, giving them +2 to their attack roles. To track characters in such a state, we slid a red poker chip under their mini. We only did this to those presenting a global combat advantage; we didn’t need a token to represent those who granted combat advantage to nearby opponents because of being flanked.

Three goblin cutters (minions) charge up to surround Haagalaz, attacking him, but only hitting once, doing four points of damage (no die roll).

Minions don’t have hit points; if they’re hit by an attack, they’re dead. They also don’t roll for damage; they get a flat four points. Both characteristics should speed up the game by providing cannon fodder and reducing dice rolling for mooks.

The dragonborn Thrax runs forward, magic missiling the fire beetle as he does so. The hit is good.

Magic missile is one of his at-will powers, which means he can use the ability as many times as he wants during a combat. As a 1st level wizard under 3E, he’d only get to do that once, maybe as many as three times depending on whether he had an bonus spell from Intelligence or a bonus specialist spell. At the same time though, he’d have more spells to choose from, having at least six spells at first level, plus a full array of cantrips.

The goblin warrior charges toward the hill, throwing a javalin as he does so. His throw is good, striking Haagalaz. he does an extra d6 of damage thanks to his “great position” ability which gives him bonus damage if he moves at least four squares in a round.

The goblin warrior will use this ability a lot during the combat. As the GM, it felt a bit cheesy to keep moving him four squares just to get the bump, but it did help make the battle more fluid, and compelled the players to have to deal with this moving target.

The dwarven paladin Klav’Druk, last survivor of the doomed plane of Azeroth, joins the fight. He makes a move toward the fire beetle that remained at ground level, then charges the creature. The charge lets him make a basic melee attack against the beetle, which hits.

The rules for basic melee and ranged attacks are buried in the combat section of the PHB, after the classes and powers. This causes some confusion because it’s not immediately obvious that basic melee/ranged attacks exist until you come across a power that references one. And then you have to dig through the book to find the appropriate entry. A brief intro at the beginning of the class section would have helped, particularly with 3E players trying to figure out where “base attack bonuses” went.

Ratfoot moves up, trying a piercing strike (a rogue ability) against the fire beetle on the hill, but missed.

The blackblade moves to engage Haagalaz. The goblin successfully uses its combat advantage to deal a nasty blow with its short sword. Evadra scampers over the hill, shoots the warrior with her eldrich blast. She also curses the creature with her fey pact power.

The warlock’s curse is an at-will power can be used on multiple opponents during the combat. The fey pact version allows the warlock who used it to teleport around the battle field if the curse victim dies. It proved to be just one of many ongoing effects we would need to track throughout the battlefield

Haagalaz strikes at the goblins around him, cleaving two instantly dead. He also declares a combat challenge on the goblin darkblade, which grants him an extra attack if the goblin tries to shift.

The fighter then sidesteps away from the other goblins, the two surviving minions follow him. The goblins attack him, but only one hits, bloodying the fighter.

Cleave is now a power, rather than a feat. We had some debate about whether this power counted as a “hit” for purposes of wounding a minion; we assumed it did.

The dragonborn Thrax closes with the fire beetle and nearby goblin warrior on the hill. He uses his breath weapon — a per-encounter power — scorching both enemies slightly.

The 1d6 damage from the breath weapon seems a little low. We also debated whether it was better to have to roll to hit each enemy, or whether it should automatically hit. Cory would rather have everything hit or miss based on one die roll, but others pointed out that works both ways. If the party is up against a dragon, they’re going to want their individual defenses to come into play. Plus, defenses in 4E replace saving throws in 3E, and you’re character has a good Reflex defense, you’re going to want to have that come into play. Finally, everyone has to make their own saves in 3E, so it’s a similar mechanic, even if it’s inverted so that the attacker is making the rolls.

Meanwhile, down below the dwarven paladin Klav’Druk kills the other fire beetle with a basic melee attack, runs past a minion shrugging off its opportunity attack (dwarven paladins having exceedingly high ACs), and then declares a divine challenge against the warrior.

There was some grumbling at the table about fighters not being able to wear platemail armor without a feat, while paladins get it for free. Personally, I’m ok with this; I think it makes the paladins more unique, and plays up visions of heavily armored knights charging into battle. Plus, with the number of feats fighters get, they can easily acquire platemail.

With the divine challenge, we now have three ongoing effects (in addition to the warlock’s curse and the fighter’s challenge) that we needed to track on the battlefield. We start using small pieces of paper to track who’s under way effect.

The goblin blackblade moves to face Haagalaz, shifts into position, drawing attack from the fighter, but both miss.

Evadra toward the goblin warrior, unleashing a great curse — the Curse of the Dark Dream. It creates a waking dream of sprites attacking the goblin with poison darts. The warlock then also gets to move the goblin around the battlefield, representing the creatures attempts to shake off the demon bees. This moves the creature closer to the dwarven paladin.

This is another good example of how 4E’s power tend to be more movement oriented, creating a more dynamic battle (at least in terms of moment and terrain)

The halfling rogue Gavin Ratfoot runs down the hill, past the snarling fire beetle (which tries to bite him, but misses). Ratfoot then jumps into the melee alongside the fighter Haagalaz.

The dragonborn moves into close combat with the goblins, and uses his thunderwave wizardly power.

The paladin switches his challenge to one of the goblin cutters, closes with it,and hits with his holy strike, killing the minion.

The warlock Evadra eyebites the goblin warrior. The burning blast damages the warrior, causing the goblin to be unable to see the warlock.

The halfling attempts to dance past the goblin cutters, but one slashes him. He flanks the shadowblade with the dwarf, pierces the creature, he then piercing strikes the shadowblade, killing him. That death causes the warlock to teleport across the field using his fey pact curse ability.

Game quote: “The warlock the rodeo clown of 4E.”

The fire beetle climbs down the hill, closing with the warlock and biting him badly.

Haagalaz then cleaves through two more goblins, cutting them down and causing the warlock to teleport again.

Some at the table don’t like the teleport effect; it seems too arbitary. Personally, I’d like to have seen a little more randomness to the effect; e.g. perhaps there’s a variable teleport, or a possible downside to the curse (taking damage and teleporting). Unfortunately, 4E’s stripped out a lot of these secondary, quirky mechanics

The goblin warrior, still stunned from the eyebite, gets a save to negate the effect. He fails.

Saves kind of still exist in 4E; if you’re subject to an ongoing effect, you roll a d20; if you get higher than a 10, you succeed and the effect ends. It bothers me that this is a 50/50 chance, and isn’t influenced by your level or abilities). That said, I understand them wanting to keep it simple and essentially, you got your ‘save’ when your opponent made his initial attack; this is just cleanup.

Haagalaz runs toward the goblin warrior. The goblin takes full advantage of his combat advantage, and throws a javalin at the fighter. The weapon strikes home, critically injuring the hero. The fighter drops to -6 hit points.

With the crit, we maximized the goblin’s weapon damage as well as his “great position” power (which augments his weapon damage). We’re not sure if that’s right, but it seemed right, so we went with it.

The dwarven paladin gets ready to fight. When Bob learns he can move, charge and then use an action dice to get two attacks against the goblin warrior, he says “nice”.

This is notable because Bob’s one of our biggest 4E skeptics.

As a minor action Klav’Druk channels divinity, choosing divine strength (doubling his strength modifier). He then charges the goblin warrior, but misses. He spends an action die to evoke his paladin’s judgement. Klav’Druk hits the goblin, doing 30 damage with the strike. This mighty blow causes his fallen ally Haagalaz to rally and recover from the goblin warrior’s earlier critical hit.

The strike with “Paladin’s Judgement” triggered our first and only healing surge. Haagalaz instantly healed to zero hit points (any time you’re at negatives, you automatically go to zero before gaining hit points back form healing). He then gained eight hit points back

The lone fire beetle survives. The halfling whips a shuriken at it with a sly flourish, but misses.

The warlock moves away from the fire beetle, then spends a healing surge, the first purposefully spent, in-combat healing surge of the game.

The paladin’s healing surge triggered a great debate about clerics and healing surges, and how combining a surge with a melee attack works for a paladin (who’s supposed to inspire people in battle) but feels like a kludge for clerics. Most of the party prefers clerics dividing their powers into pure combat or pure healing. There was also a huge debate about whether 3rd edition clerics constantly needing to burn spells to heal their allies represented a bug or a feature.

The remaining fire beetle dies of boredom while we debate clerics.

Final Notes

Overall, the combat went prety well. We spent a lot of time looking up rules to make sure we were using the proper 4E version of the rules, rather than assuming we knew what we were doing based on 3rd edition.

After running through this battle, the general sense is that 4E combat isn’t any less complex than the previous edition, it’s just complex in a different way.

True to its design goals, everyone had something to do in this combat, though the sense was that the wizard’s powers ended up feeling repetitive. The sentiment at the table was that the 4E designers were taking a “We want to have our cake and eat it too” approach to the game, so not only does a cleric get a variety of abilities during a turn, but he can make melee attacks and heal at the same time. The majority felt that this could have been dealt with in a way that didn’t make cleric-triggered healing surges seem so arbitrary.

This “everyone has something to do” approach also gave rise to the comment “everyone gets a trophy,” which in turn reminds me of the line from The Incredibles in which Flash’s mom tells him “Everyone’s special” and he replies by saying “that’s just another way of saying no one is.”

There definitely some of that feel to 4E, but opinions of whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing are going to vary greatly based on the group of players.

There was also a sense that all these special powers constantly flying around the table gave the game a sort of DragonballZ feel to it, which doesn’t quite jive with our more traditional fantasy style.

From a mechanical standpoint, I was surprised at how many effects we ended up having to track. While the number of ongoing spell effects is definitely down, the number of special markers we need to keep track of effects like paladin, warlock and fighter special “mark” abilities offsets those gains. Also, there was a sense that the game felt somewhat like Warhammer, which has similar ongoing effects.

For our first full D&D 4E sessions, I’ll be using different color glass beads to keep track of these effects, which should help the confusion factor, and reduce the number of little bits of paper floating around.

And what of not having a cleric in the party? In this combat, it didn’t have a huge effect — only one character used his second wind (and thus, was out of healing surges). Haagalaz bore the brunt of the goblins’ fury, and was reduced to negative hit points, but the paladin’s timely healing surge brought him back, so again, a cleric wasn’t essential. Characters could also have used a Heal skill check to give the fallen fighter a second wind

I think in a tougher battle, or if we’d had a second battle that session, not having a cleric would have more of a pronounced effect. If the party exhausted their collective second wind, then they likely would have needed those extra healing opportunities. As is though, the combat ran just fine without the cleric, and it didn’t feel like there was a glaring hole in our lineup because of the lack of a “leader”-role character.