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

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 bloodied, 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, printable 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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