First Impressions of D&D 4th Edition

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is upon us. I’ve spent last two weeks or so readying through the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition core rule books, and my gaming group had our first character creation session two weeks ago. We’d hoped to jump into the game sooner, but alas I had a business trip to Tacoma last week, which delayed the first round of playtesting and the formal launch of the campaign to this week. Fortunately, the trip gave me plenty of time to read the books, and garner some some solid impressions of the new game.

D&D: The Collectible Card Game

First things first — you hear a lot of people comparing D&D 4E to World of Warcraft and its massively-multiplayer online role-playing game kin. While there are certainly aspects of WoW in this new game, mechanically it really owes its greatest debt to collectible card games. Just like Magic: The Gathering, Vs. and a gazillion other card games, it uses an exception-based rules system. This means it has one relatively simple core game mechanic, and then hundreds of little exceptions that break those rules.

The fundamental building blocks of the new edition are its powers, which provide most of the aforementioned exceptions to the rules. These are exceptional or supernatural abilities that every class in the book, be it fighter, rogue, wizard or warlock, has. Players get a certain number of at-will powers (usable at any time), encounter powers (useable once per power) and daily powers (usable once per day). Each class has a role within the game — such as defender, striker, controller, and leader — and the powers are themed to complement those roles. For example, fighters have the “defender” role, which means they’re good at drawing attacks away from their allies, while simultaneously dealing massive amounts of damage. Warlords and clerics, on the other hand, are leaders who augment their allies in some way, providing additional tactical opportunities in combat or giving them the chance to spend a “healing surge” to regain hit points.

Each power is detailed in a statblock that’s color coded to the type of power it is (at will, encounter, etc.). Paging through the Players Handbook, I was struck by how much it felt shuffling through a deck of Magic cards, and in many ways, the old 3rd Edition fears that the game would be turned into Magic: The Dungeon Crawl have been realized. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Wizards (or someone else) release a powers deck in the near future; it would certainly make managing one’s powers a lot easier.

Ultimately, powers are the single biggest departure from earlier editions of the rule. I think adoption of the new game among longtime players hedges on how people feel about these powers and how they compare to earlier editions. If folks feel the new powers system fails to recreate their old characters (or even their old style of play), they’ll likely not want to upgrade.

A Classless Act

In previous editions, each class basically ended up with its own mechanical peculiarities. Barbarians raged, druids and rangers had animal companions, clerics and wizards had their massive spell selections.

This time around the classes have been unified. Each class now has 30 levels instead of 3E’s 20, with the levels broken up into three tiers –heroic, paragon, and epic. A single progression chart for all the core classes spells out what feats, powers, and ability bumps characters get at different levels. This means, at its core, that every class is balanced against one another in terms of abilities. While the flavor text and mechanics may very, each class gets exactly the same number of new abilities each level.

The end result is what one of my friends called “D&D for Communists”. Everyone is equal in 4E; there’s no more of this “fighters are good at low levels, wizards kick ass at high levels” dissonance (or at least, perception of dissonance; our high level fighters usually kicked ass just fine); everyone advances in lockstep.

In addition, there’s less diversity in styles of play. In 3E, players could pick from straightforward, easy-to-run sorcerers and fighters, as well as complex clerics and wizards with deep reserves of spells and magic items. In 4E, everyone’s using the same power mechanic, and has more or less the same levels of complexity. For some people, this is clear evidence of the dumbing down of the game (though it should be noted that 2E players said the same when ThacO was thrown out the window with 3E).

There are still difference among classes in D&D, but that diversity comes from role, rather than individualized mechanics. Each class has a role (or style of play) that it’s particularly good: fighters and paladins are defenders, clerics and warlords are leaders, rangers and rogues are strikers, warlocks and wizards are controllers. Each has powers that play into that role: for example, as leaders, warlords are able to give other characters extra actions, while as defenders, fighters are able to divert attacks from their allies.

One common criticism of 3rd Edition was its rampant multiclassing, as players took a combination of three, four, even five base and prestige classses to create the perfect combination. Wizards fed this tendency by releasing dozens of base classes and hundreds of prestige classes in its myriad supplements.

4E deals with this issue by gutting multiclassing. It’s impossible for a character to take a level in another class, the best you can do is take a “multiclassing” feat that lets you steal a skill and a single ability from another class, but only one other class. You can also take feats to steal powers from other classes, allowing you to build a wizard who can pull of a handful of fighter tricks or a rogue who can cast one or two wizard spells.

All-in-all, the game is very strongly classed, almost as much as the D&D Basic system was (though thankfully, elves don’t have to be magic users). Some may like this approach, but at the same time it can feel like the designers are trying to railroad people into playing their characters a certain way.

Simplified Skill Sets

Skills are simplified, collapsing down many separate skills into a few overarching categories, while at the same time ditching the skill point system entirely. You get a couple of class skills that you get a set +5 bonus to, and that’s it. No more buying skills when you level up; they automatically improve as a function of your class level.

The total number of available skills is greatly reduced, and I’m surprised at how combat/adventure oriented those surviving skills are. The more utilitarian skills like Craft, Profession and Knowledge, that were great for fleshing out a character’s personality and background, are gone.

The game introduces a new “Skill Challenge” mechanic that basically provides a framework for creating non-combat encounters such as diplomatic negotiations. In a challenge, players need to achieve a certain number off successes before getting a certain number of failures in order to accomplish a task. Spycraft did something like this, and I’ve tried it a few times in my Dark City campaign. It’s a good idea, and I like how it provides a mechanism for characters to gain experience without having to kill monsters. That said, the combat/encounter heavy skill set undercuts this system in many ways, ultimately making it less useful than it should be.

I liked how 3E’s skill points allowed me to easily create a variety of different rogues, from pickpockets to trapfinders to sneaks to brawlers. The same went for every other class, though to a lesser degree: if you wanted a brainy fighter or an athletic wizard, you could do it. With 4E, those options have been gutted, and I think the system’s worse for it.

Everyday Feats

Feats played a huge role in 3rd edition, and provided much of the variation we saw from class to class and character to character. The edition spawned more than 3,000 feats in its myriad supplements, so it’s not surprising that we see feats in 4th edition.

That said, they’re not quite the same as feats in 3rd. Many of the really impressive feats from 3rd edition, like “cleave” or “whirlwhind attack” are now powers. This skims the cream from the top of the feat list, and what’s left behind are the sort of functional, run-of-the-mill feats that provide a few nice tweaks and extra abilities for a character, but nothing spectacular. The spectacular stuff is now the real of powers.

Characters now get a lot more feats — picking up one at first level, one at second, and then one every other level. This help counter the lack of multiclassing because it allows you to buy basic martial and arcane abilities without having to, say, take a level of fighter so that your wizard can fight with a sword. I built a fairly cool 15th level swordsage with these rules, pulling in enough longsword-related feats to give him a solid, if not amazing, melee attack.

What do seem to be missing are a lot of the basic role-playing or non-combat oriented feats from 3E — stuff like, “Agility”, “Persuasive” and “Negotiator”. That’s disappointing because coupled with the lack of diversity in skill choices, it reinforces the cookie-cutter skill sets of most characters.

Rituals for Everyone!

Some of the diversity of spells lost to wizards and clerics is made up through rituals, which are utility-style spells like raise dead, floating disk, phantom steed and remove affliction not typically cast in combat. Rituals have a material cost associated with them, and can get expensive at higher levels.

Rituals are also an extension of the designer’s attempt to get multiclassing under control. Rather than force people to take a class to get access to such spells, they turn to feats. On it’s face, it seems like it could work: Require a Ritual Caster feat to access rituals, require a Skill Check (and thus, the Skill Training feat) in order to cast the Ritual. Give clerics and wizards the necessary feat and skill for free. Tie the results of the spell to the results of the skill check; the better you do, the better your results. With such a system you could prevent higher-level rituals from being cast simply by virtue of a lack of knowledge; if you’ve only got a few ranks in Religion, you’re not going to be able to cast that impressive Divine spell (or at least, not as effectively as a cleric)

Such a system would mimic having a fighter/cleric who dabbles in divine spell casting, as well as a true cleric who can do mighty things, but without all the mucking about with multiclassing.

Except, it doesn’t work like that.

The problem is that in 4E, the skill system has greatly streamlined, so you no longer have those kinds of variations in skill mastery. Someone who is trained in a skill is pretty much as effective as everyone else who’s trained in that skill. There is some variation, based on ability modifiers and whether you took the Skill Focus feat, but I’m willing to be the average range at any given level will probably be a difference of +1 to +4.

And then they further fubar it by ditching skill checks for the Rituals that really matter. So that 1st level human fighter who took Ritual Caster + Skill Training (Religion) can cast every divine ritual for his level, and do it about as well as the cleric. It also means that the same fighter at 8th level can raise the dead.

Without a skill check, which blows my mind. You could have a huge amount of fun with that ritual, harkening back to the old resurrection survival check — imagine varying DCs, with negative consequences for failure (he stays dead), really negative consequences for a spectacular failure (he’s a zombie!) and varying degrees of resurrection on a success (e.g. you got a 10? Ok, he’s back, but he’s at -10 to everything for X number of days).

Alas, they didn’t go that way, and instead a fighter can raise someone from the dead with a touch, and to me, that makes the ritual system a little too common, and it further dilutes the Cleric and Wizard classes.

It makes me wonder if the Rituals are a relic of an earlier version of 4E that didn’t have the simplified skill system; it actually seems like something that would work better as a 3E variant.

Bag-o-Magic Items

Magic items have been greatly streamlined in 4th edition. They’ve essentially become powers in weapon, armor or wondrous form. While this was certainly true under 3E as well, most magic items have a primary effect (e.g. a “thundering weapon” does +1d6 thunder damage) and a single power (the “thundering weapon” allows you do deal 1d8 points of damage and push a target one square once per day). Most of the old 3E weapons and magic items are recreated here, presented in colored statblocks similar to powers.

Reading through them, I was strongly reminded not only of CCGs, but World of Warcraft as well. Magic items are now organized by slots (e.g. “head slot” or “hand slot”) which feels like something ripped from WoW. Yes, I know that such a system originated with D&D in the first place, but the new presentation makes the them feel like power-ups in a video game.

A major change is magic item creation; one-shot magic items like scrolls and potions still exist, but are limited to a very small subset of the overall powers available in the game. Once again, this guts the diversity and rich collection of spells and magic items that the cleric and wizard classes had under 3E. Another big change? You can only use magic items a certain number of days. This gets rid of the “how many charges do I have left?” bookkeeping of earlier editions, but once again it reduces the flexibility of clerics and wizards, while at the same time feeling extremely arbitrary.

Inaction Points

I think the most underwhelming aspect of the game so far has been its implementation of “action points”. Variations of this mechanic have been seen in a number of different games and settings, both in d20 (Spycraft, Mutants & Masterminds, d20 Modern) and non-d20 (Savage Worlds, Battlestar Galactica). In 4E, players start the session with a single action die. At the heroic tier, they can spend the die to gain an extra action, at the paragon tier, they can use it to power certain ‘paragon path’ abilities.

There are a handful of powers that play off of spending an action die, but all in all it feels like an malnourished game mechanic, at least in comparison to its peers. In Mutants & Masterminds, players could spend hero points to emulate any feat. In Serenity they can be used to edit the story or buy additional dice for a skill check. Hell, even in d20 Modern they could be used to re-roll blown dice. Granted, the d20 modern route could lead to people hoarding their dice to guard against critical failures, but there are other mechanical ways to get people to spend those dice.

I was hoping for an action dice mechanic in 4E that would tie directly into the role-playing mechanics, as is the case in Battlestar and Spycraft, where good role-playing, and using both your advantages and disadvantages in the game, gains you action dice rewards. Instead, we got a forgettable mechanic that’ll probably only be dug out when someone is scrambling for options to save their character from certain death.

Final Thoughts … For Now

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it means different things to different people, which makes it a bitch to review. For some, particularly those who felt bogged down or even paralyzed by the sheer number of choices in 3E, 4E will feel like a welcome simplification.

And if that simplification means that characters remain playable from level 1 to level 30 (as opposed to 3E, where things start to break down around 15th level), then it may enable some truly epic campaigns in which characters battle the gods themselves. That’s something we haven’t done since grade school (pantheon killing anyone?) and there’s a certain appeal there. Granted, this high-level play comes at the cost of the complexity of 3E, but it does open new possibilities.

My biggest concern about 4E is its tightened focus and lack of rules diversity. 3E, for all its faults, did have the virtue of being able to scale easily from low-powered, low-magic campaigns to the high powered extremes, letting one rule set accommodate settings like the low-to-medium powered Greyhawk and the ultra-highpowered Forgotten Realms.

I don’t see that sort of flexibility in 4E; it enables a certain style of play, and discourages most others. While I think it may work for some campaign settings as is — particularly the high-action, more modern Eberron and the always-mutating DragonLance its going to be a lot harder to adopt to more traditional fantasy settings like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms or horror settings like Ravenloft.

The fact that Wizards of the Coast had to jump the Realms timeline ahead a hundred years to handle 4E implicitly acknowledges this drawback. While we could do something similar with Greyhawk, and even hack the rules into shape for our current setting, we shouldn’t have to. The D&D rules should be flexible enough to easily accommodate a variety of styles of play, instead of compelling a certain style of play.

Of course, all of this is based on reading the rules, not playing the game. My 4th edition Planetorn campaign — in which our heroes must save the multiverse from a storm threatening to destroy reality — begins this week. Once I have a few games under my belt, I’ll have a better feel for just how well the game fits — or doesn’t fit — our style of play.


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