Observations on High Heroic Tier Game Play in D&D 4E

We ran our last D&D 4E session on Friday, concluding the playtest campaign that ran all summer. Since this was our last hurrah (at least for a while) we decided to level our characters up from 2nd to 9th level to see how they played.

Here are a few random observations that popped up during the game.

Scaling Complexity

Level 9 characters didn’t feel a lot more complex than their Level 2 equivalents. Combats took longer, but part of that was because people weren’t familiar with their powers (as they would have been had they leveled organically). The higher level playtest confirmed our believe that 4E has a far more gradual “power curve” than 3E, which is to say its level of complexity increases slowly. We’ll need to confirm this with paragon and epic playtests, but so far, so good (assuming you think this is good … which not everyone does).

Oversized Sack of Hit Points

Generally speaking, monsters feel like they have about 25 percent more hit points than they need. Against grunts (e.g. a hobgoblin warband) it felt like the soldiers were always hanging around two or three rounds longer than necessary. This happened at lower levels as well, and I’ve seen others blog similar complaints.

One-Shot Wonders

I think most of our players were a little frustrated with how encounter and daily powers play out in the game, mostly because of their binary nature: you either have them, or you don’t. There’s no way to re-use a really good power in a combat, and it can feel very limiting, especially given that at-wills can be used all day. A feat that allows a second use of an encounter power (or perhaps a chance to reuse a missed one?) would help.

“He Shots, He Misses!”

Related to this is the frustration that comes from missing with a daily power. They’re big powers, and pack a big punch, but the chance to hit with one doesn’t scale with the strength of the power. You have the same chance to hit with an at-will as you do with a daily, but the effect of missing with a daily (usable only once) is far greater.

I understand why these powers work this way from a game balance point of view, but it did lead to a fair amount of frustration around the table, especially on nights when players were rolling exceedingly badly. Again, a feat or ability that allows you to get a second crack at using one of these powers would be useful. I think there are some paragon class abilities that let you do that once you hit level 11, but that’s about 10 levels too late for us.

Traps as Encounters

Traps, which are essentially skill challenges in a different guise, are a lot of fun in 4E. They feel far more like an encounter than one-off “gotchas” that they were in 3E. That’s because each trap entry spells out how characters can detect and disable it, in addition to explaining what happens when they set it off. This is nothing that couldn’t be done (or wasn’t done) under 3E, but I think 4E does a good job of stressing the problem-solving aspects of traps. I look forward to backporting some of its traps to 3E.

Action Points are Actually Used!

Going into 4E, I was disappointed at how mundane the Action Point mechanic was. It was hoping for something more dynamic and rewarding, like what you find in Cortex (which powers Serenity and Battlestar Galactica) or Spycraft. I wasn’t sure that they’d be used any more than they were in 3E, but it turns out that they work quite well. Every combat sees players using their Action Points to really kick up the game a notch, often at times when they either need to put more pressure on an enemy, or need to make up for a missed attack. I still wish they were rewarded at a faster rate, and were used as a role-playing, rather than combat tenacity, reward, but they do work.

Wax on, and on, and on

Keying powers to attacks (rather than having more non-offensive, utility-style powers to augment the party) can be frustrating. When so many effects rely on getting a hit to go off, and you’re not hitting (or rolling well) you might as well be sidelined. This is the opposite effect of the non-combat oriented cleric in 3E being sidelined by casting buffs and healing, but never getting into he middle of combat.

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