Game Day: Comparing 3E vs 4E DM Prep Times

This week’s game sees us returning to our Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition roots after weeks of beating up 4th Edition in our Planetorn playtest campaign. The playtest’s not over, just on hiatus because of real-world player obligations, and this pause is giving us a chance to go back and tie up some loose ends in our other campaigns.

That means I’ve had a chance to leaf through my old 3rd edition books, browse the d20 srd, and spend some time reflecting on the game master side of the 3E vs. 4E battle. This is the second time in a month that I’ve done this — I also ran a high-level 3.5 adventure in late July — and while some people may hate to hear this, I’ve come to one undeniable conclusion:

4th Edition takes far less time to prep for than 3rd edition.

Monster vs. Monster

Now I will say that I’m not comparing apples and oranges here: our 4th Edition Planetorn campaign is all about exploring strange new worlds, and almost all of its encounters have featured creatures from the Monster Manual with the occasional quick sketch NPC (and I’ve cheated by using 3E shorthand to stat out those characters, though I should really try my hand at 4E NPC creation).

Our current Dark City 3.5 edition campaign is role-playing intensive, and primarily deals with fully fleshed out NPCs.

That said, even if I only compare the monster segment of my prep time, 4E winds hands down. The reason why isn’t that the 4th Edition Monster Manual is better organized than the 3E version. It’s that 4th Edition’s exceptions based ruleset means that each monster has its own specialized attacks and powers, independent of any other monster. Because these microrules are defined in the creature’s statblock, there’s no need to look up anything in another rule book. I can simply read the statblock, grok the rules, and then bookmark or photocopy the page for future reference.

In 3rd edition, I rarely get off that easy. Anything more than the most basic creature is going to have some spell-like ability, power or trick that’s referred to in another rule book. For example, when I ran our high-level 3E one shot, I threw a horned devil at the party. Now thankfully, the d20 SRD has already hyperlinked all of this devil’s special abilities and powers, but I still have to go through and read each individual spell entry, calculate the amount of damage the monster will do at its level, note the DC, and jot all this down in my adventure notes so I’m not scrambling to look things up in game.

This added a considerable amount of time to my game prep, and more importantly, it’s the kind of drudge work that I suspect few people like doing, and it took away from being able to work on the story’s plot (or, more likely, being able to call it a day early and hit the sack).

If Paizo’s looking for suggestions on how to improve Pathfinder over 3x, I think the single biggest thing they could do on the GM side is to retool all of the 3rd edition SRD monsters to include statblocks with one line power summaries, target numbers, difficulty classes, and damage dealt. It’s a massive undertaking to be sure, but I think for some folks it will come down to the difference between running the game, not running the game, or converting to 4th Edition.

Human Rabble and Other Common Shemps

Another advantage that 4th Edition has is that it’s gone ahead and statted out a bunch of shemps. That is, generic characters that can easily be swapped in and out of any encounter. Shemps exist for all of the human and demi-human races in the PHB, and they’re a tremendous time savor. The human entry alone includes write-ups for human rabble (Level 3 minion), human minion (Level 7 minion), human bandit (Level 2 skirmisher), human guard (level 3 soldier), human berserker (level 4 brute) and human mage (level 4 artillery).

I can quickly modify this shemps into something more interesting using the functional templates and class templates from the Dungeon Master’s Guide (the former satisfy a particular niche in the game, like bodyguard or demon acolyte, while the later provide an NPC with a few class-based abilities).

3rd Edition did some of this — most of the Monster Manuals have at least base entries for the various player character races — but they’re not as varied and shemp-able as in 4th Edition.


Now as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been cheating with my 4E NPC statblocks, so I haven’t done a proper comparison between creating a fully-detailed 4E NPC vs. his 3E equivalent. Mostly I’ve just done what I’ve been doing in 3E, which is jotting down a few quick game stats — e.g. Jith Vendhzar, Master of the Obsinias House is merely a Wizard 10/Loremaster 5, with Knowledge (Arcana) +20 and Knowledge (Planar) +20. I have only a vague idea what his 4E stats would be (probably something like Wizard 20 with the paragon path of Loremaster) but for my purposes, I don’t need it. Jith’s essentially a plot device right now, and shorthand is enough.

My sense though, from having created a few experimental characters for 4E, is that NPC creation will go quicker simply by virtue of having fewer choices than 3E. Under 3rd edition, I’d have 15 levels of skills to sort through to create an NPC, not to mention a few dozen spells. Under 4E, you only ever get a handful of at-will, encounter, daily and utility powers, and even adding in a few rituals the amount of prep time is probably half, if not 1/4 that of the 3rd edition NPC.

There’s also the fact that in some cases, I don’t need to create new NPCs from scratch; for a few of the Planetorn encounters I’ve simply tweaked the human entries from the Monster Manual. When cultists attacked the party while traveling from Azra, City of Bronze, to the Pillars of Glass, I simply grabbed a couple of human rabble, two bandits and a mage, then applied a “scion of flame” template from the Dungeon Master’s Guide to the mage. It’s like a shake-and-bake encounter, and it took far less time to prep than the equivalent would have under 3E (even using the generic warrior statblocks we created years ago for exactly this purpose).

That said, I do need to test creating full-blooded NPCs, so for my next 4E Game Day column I’ll stat out Jith in his 3E and 4E incarnations, and report back on how things went.

The Fire in Which We Burn

Ultimately, this is one of the aspects of 4th Edition that I find so frustrating. From my side of the screen, I find the game to be a significant improvement because at every turn, they’ve made my job easier. Combined with my Three-page Manifesto, I’m able to knock my D&D prep time down to an hour. As a geek dad who never has enough time, that’s a huge deal.

And yet, at the same time on the player side I find the system far more limiting. Powers have made all of the classes feel more generic, and while there’s still a good deal of customization available in the game, I miss the quirky uniqueness that each class had under previous editions and yes, I miss the inherent, amazingly deep 3E crunch factor.

If Paizo can cherry pick the best aspects of 4E for Pathfinder — and they should have no trouble doing that, since most of the stuff I’ve mentioned is presentational, rather than mechanical, in nature — then they may just have my perfect system.