June 2008. Like a lot of other people, I was (still) working on my great OGL RPG, but I was excited to see how the brand-new edition of D&D would progress the system. My plan was to tear into the new ruleset as soon as it hit the market and see what the changes meant for me as a game designer. Personally, I longed for more stuff along the lines of d20 Modern.
Instead, we got 4th edition. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I was horrified. Astonished. Disgusted. At the time, it felt like the game devs took every innovation 3rd edition introduced into the game and threw it out the window. Then they handed OD&D to a preschooler for a rewrite and got a brain-dead, preadolescent MMORPG drone to spit-polish it for them.
And, since it was the current version, they wanted 4E. Of course. I did have all the existing books, after all, so I reluctantly agreed to DM for them.
I won't claim I loved the game from the moment I sat down to DM it—heck, I won't even claim I liked it. But the streamlining they'd done and the consistency improvements started to make sense to me. I began to see 4E more as an evolution than a betrayal. I'll go so far as to say that there were things I enjoyed about it, even back in 2009. (Skill Challenges, anyone?)
As I've gotten more perspective and less opinionated on roleplaying in general, I've come to realize something. There are a lot of things I love about 4th Edition D&D.
Allow me to explain.
"In the heroic tier, your character is already a hero, set apart from the common people by your natural talents, learned skills, and some hint of a greater destiny that lies before you."
—4th Edition Player's Handbook, p. 28
First off, let me say: Character Creation is one of my favorite things about 4E, but I also hate it. They gutted the skill system from 3E, which I'd adored, and that was the primary source of my early disdain for the game. 4E basically required you to play on a game board. Since they streamlined class features so extensively, every class had the tendency to feel similar compared to older editions. Face it, magic has never been good in D&D—but somehow, this edition managed to make it even worse. To add insult to injury, they removed real-world units and replaced them with 'squares', as if we were morons that didn't understand basic math.
4E used Hit Points, but you got plenty at 1st level. What's more, they didn't double when you hit 1,000 Experience Points. This edition gave you a gradual increase in HP that felt less ballistic than... actually, than any other edition. The new Healing Surges were strange, but they empowered characters to restore lost hit points without spending gold or burning precious per-day spells. I could tell, even from the start, that I approved of these changes.
D&D was always about level charts that told you what abilities you got, when. It's a failing that comes out of the fundamental assumptions of the game's wargaming roots. D&D had evolved somewhat: 2E AD&D added noncombat proficiencies. 3E incorporated feats and mix-and-match multiclassing. It was modular Class Talents from d20 Modern, though, that really pulled the game out of its chart-based straitjacket. 4th edition took this even further, doing away with class charts entirely. You picked the powers you wanted at each level. For D&D, this was revolutionary enough to make leveling up fun in an RPG that had always before been boring as sports.
Now, when WotC reimagined 4E in their Player Essentials line of books, they stepped away from this brilliant departure and regressed from their mechanical revolution. I'm not even gonna talk about that. It was just… suffice it to say, I was crushed by their cowardly betrayal of every forward-thinking RPG visionary since the late 1980s. I chose to block those unholy tomes from my mind forever.
Now. In 4E, as your character improved, hir at-will abilities got better in the only sense that matters in D&D: dealing or healing more damage. Even for non-fighter characters. This was something we got through the various WotC iterations of the Star Wars RPG, but it hadn't made it into a D&D game yet. It was pivotal!
4th edition brought implements for clerics and magic-users out of the background, making them more than just set dressing. Admittedly, this distanced them from Vancian magic, from which D&D took its inspiration. However, it felt like a meaningful change that added flavor to the game.
And did I mention not having to roll for Hit Points?
"When a player's turn comes up in a skill challenge, let that player's character use any skill the player wants. As long as the player or you can come up with a way to let this secondary skill play a part in the challenge, go for it."
Skill challenges. The best thing to come out of a D&D DMG in… pretty much ever. Skill challenges took something as simple as a skill check and turned it into an event. It made being a bard during a noncombat segment just as exciting as being a fighter during battle. And since it encouraged PCs to change up their approach for each roll, it included a measure of strategy.
Rituals. (And, with Martial Powers 2, Martial Practices) These powerful tools gave characters the ability to cast spells or use advanced mundane skills to achieve extraordinary effects without using a spell slot or daily power. Much as I generally dislike the magic system in 4E, this groundbreaking-for-D&D mechanic made the whole mess worth it. Plus, this is one thing they kept in 5th edition. I was thrilled.
Healing Surges. I mentioned them before, but they're significant enough that it bears repeating: for D&D's style of Hit Point-based combat, these things were perfect. D&D players, especially new ones, tend to hear the word 'damage' and misunderstand the wargaming context behind it. They often believe 'damage' in D&D means physical wounds that a cleric has to heal. But with Healing Surges, 4E shifted 'damage' (see what I did there? :-b) to mean battle fatigue that a warlord could dispel with nothing more than a forceful word. It was inspired!
Even better, Healing Surges made a healer bot unnecessary by giving every PC the power to recover HP between combat encounters. Frankly, I wish they'd kept healing surges in 5E. The new take on Hit Dice in 5E was comparable, true, but there was no way to use it in the middle of an encounter.
Streamlined Ability Usage. One thing 4E did right was streamlining ability use frequency. 3E was a nightmare in bookkeeping: Your Gnome Barbarian/Bard/Cleric had to keep track of daily consumption for hir racial spells, Bard spells, Cleric spells, Rage uses and duration, Bardic Inspiration, and Channel Energy uses. 4E, on the other hand, did its best to limit each ability to a single usage per period, with only a few exceptions. (Clerics and warlords were the originals, followed by barbarians and shamans. With Power Points and Psionic classes, though, the devs broke their good record. I mean, every Psionics book in all of D&D is contractually obligated to break the system, dontchaknow?) That was inspired because you only had to remember which abilities you'd used instead of having to keep track of how many times you'd used them. (And, yes, they made playing cards for that. While they felt cheesy and all sorts of wrong, those darned things actually helped speed up gameplay.)
Item Power Limit. Streamlining ability use worked for magic items, too. The way 4E did magic items gave players up to ten or so daily-use powers. Rather than letting PCs spam these abilities, the game designers created the Magic Item Daily Power Limit. This was a simple, effective cap on magic item powers that headed off an item-management nightmare for DMs, and it was well-done.
"It's never just a combat encounter—it's a life-or-death struggle between heroic adventurers and horrific monsters… Keep the pace fast, the narration vivid, and the players enthralled!"
— 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, p. 36
Split Defense Scores. 4E shunned the archaic Saving Throw mechanic from old D&D. Instead, the devs flipped it and divided AC into four different defense totals. Anytime you targeted an opponent, you rolled an attack against one of these defense scores. No more Save vs Ray! Instead, 4E used Saving Throws to simplify effect durations. All this was ridiculously quicker and more elegant than old D&D. (I loved that armor added to Fortitude defense, too!) This was one of the best, most iconic systems in the edition.
Bloodied. A simple and powerful mechanic, the Bloodied condition gave players and DMs an easy way to communicate that a combatant was starting to show the effects of damage. It also provided an unparalleled-for-D&D method to key conditions and abilities to a character's physical status in combat. The 5E designers soft-pedaled a version of Bloodied in their sidebar, (See "Describing the Effects of Combat" on p. 197 of the 5E PHB) but abandoned it as an official rule. That was a grave error in judgment.
Action Points. They're not as versatile as APs from Spycraft or d20 Modern, but they're a lot more common. Still, APs give players a chance to retry an attack when they can't afford to miss. They're also highly houserulable, making it easy for the DM to grant rerolls on Saving Throws, enemy attack rolls, and whatever else seems appropriate.
Scaled Attack Powers. While previous editions of D&D had been stingy with damage output, 4th edition cut loose with weapon damage. At 1st level, a strong Rogue in 3E can deal 2d6+4 damage with hir shortsword. The same character in 4E can pull out a daily power for 5d6+4 damage that also shifts hir victim 1 square every time ze hits for the rest of the encounter. Giving players high-damage maneuvers makes it believable the PCs are heroic champions instead of squishy grunts.
Non-damage effects. Don't even get me started on this. Previously, damage effects had been something monsters did to PCs, not the other way around. Using mechanics to simulate herding, weakening, blinding, and other tactical options without forsaking HP damage was genius. Even in 3E. Mechanically speaking, 3E's Trip was a combat non-option. Why would you give up dealing damage to inflict a status effect that didn't even hinder your target's next attack? But in 4E, you got to do both.
Max Criticals. 3rd edition went off the deep end with critical hits. You rolled a critical, confirmed it, rolled 2 or 3 times the damage dice, added them together, and multiplied the bonuses. Instead of being an exciting event, 3rd edition turned critical hits into a dragged-out process.
In 4E, they returned to simplicity. When you rolled a crit, you didn't even have to roll damage--you just achieved the max result. With 3E, your critical might fail and disappoint you. You could whiff on your damage roll. In 4E, they prevented both outcomes while making critical resolution lightning fast.
Daily Powers. It wasn't just that Daily Powers had awesome-sounding descriptions and more potent effects. Many Daily Powers inflicted damage or effect, even on a miss. That blunted the edge of regret from wasting your Daily on a natural 1. It also gave you a reason to expend Daily Powers, even against enemies you probably wouldn't hit.
Minions. Why they didn't include minions in 5E is beyond me. A minion's raison d'etre is to put up a fight until the player hits it, then die. Said differently, the point of a minion is to make PCs look fantastic mowing through hordes of enemies like B.J. Blaskowicz with a chaingun. Or, if you prefer, a minion's job is to let a DM field enough bad guys that the fight feels epic without tracking fifty sets of HP and stats. Minions were phenomenal. If there's a 6E D&D, they need to bring back the minions.
XP Budget. Making encounters back in 3E went something like this: Find monster around the appropriate CR. Add another to bump the CR up just right. Find another cool monster you want to add. Remove the second monster (two monsters is boring, anyway—what were you thinking?!) and consult the Mixed CR chart to figure out what your new CR is going to look like. Add two more of the new monster to increase its CR. Now the CR is… wait, no. The terrain gives your new monster an advantage.
Throw your hands up and drink whiskey.
But in 4E, they simplified the whole CR mess so that you had what they called an 'XP Budget'. You spent it on monsters and traps you wanted. Setting up combat encounters had been like balancing a complex equation. Now it felt like shopping at a toy store. It just made DMing more fun at ground level.
Monster Ability Recharge. Monsters got daily and encounter abilities, just like PCs. However, their transient role in a session called for frequency a bit more granular. Enter: Recharge. You use the ability. On each turn thereafter, you roll 1d6 against a threshold. If you hit, you can use the power again. Beyond that, recharge could tie to a condition instead of a dice roll: "Recharges when bloodied," for instance. This rule allowed the DM to revisit powerful attacks, but in a simple, structured way that ensured the dragon won't blast hir breath weapon every single turn.
Monster Lore. Including snippets about each monster, tied to skill DCs, was atmospheric, sure. It also made it easy to determine whether characters know enough to use fire against a troll. Yet another phenomenal innovation 4E added to the game.
"The D&D rules cannot possibly account for the variety of campaigns and play styles of every group. If you disagree with how the rules handle something, changing them is within your rights."
-- 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, p. 189
4th edition was great at some things, but there were plenty of things about it I would've done differently. If 4.5E had been my project, here are a few things I would've changed.
Character creation in 4E was solid, but 5E did a great job with its Backgrounds. The ones they introduced in 4E's Player's Handbook 2 were a step in the right direction, but 5E's were vastly better. I'd bring those in.
Personality, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw from 5E. These roleplaying prompts were basic, but also the perfect addition to D&D's character creation. They belong.
I don't like 5E magic, but there are things I like about it. If I rewrote 4E, I'd stop trying to cram spells into the power structure martial maneuvers use. It's ludicrous. You do a disservice to your magic system when you try to reduce magical spells to combat moves.
I'd keep cantrips as at-will abilities, like in 5E, and make spell slots daily or, for warlocks, per-encounter abilities. Up to this point, it's not much different from 4E. But rather than statting out every spell as if it were an attack, I'd write spells up the way 5E did, without trying to write each one in terms of its combat application. I'd adust them for casting rolls instead of saving throws, of course.
Personally, I'd return to skill ranks, but I have a feeling most people would disagree. Skills in 4E weren't terrible--no matter my early impressions. I'd probably keep the system as-is and add more of the skill-related feats they made for Star Wars d20 and 3.5E. I'd definitely keep the boon powers (the alternative to magic items) they introduced in Dungeon Master's Guide 2 and the skill powers from Player's Handbook 3. I loved those!
Proficiency Bonus was another thing they improved in 5E. I'd go with that implementation. It felt more consistent—in 4E, you used half level in most rolls, but weapons had their own proficiency bonuses. 5E's universal Proficiency bonus was better.
I don't mind how 5E linked Saves to Ability Scores, but I prefer 4E's Fortitude, Reflex, and Will Defense. Saves worked the same way as Armor Class, which felt more consistent. Besides, spells used a casting roll instead of the cockamamy save mechanic from 1E. (Okay, okay. Spell saves made sense in a strict mechanical interpretation of the Vancian paradigm. From a gameplay standpoint, though, they were arbitrary and backward and awful.)
Video-gamey as it was, I enjoyed 4E's magic item system. Yes, it felt like Everquest. However, it was superior at defining how much you could wear at one time. With that definition, it also offered more variety to fill your item slots. Since you had an arms slot, the system provided things like Bracers of Respite, Mindiron Vambraces, and the Wyrmguard Shield. Since wants and staves were essential tools, you got the Wand of Witchfire or Feyswarm Staff.
Furthermore, 4E defined what kinds of bonuses and abilities each item slot provided. It gave the system a unified feel, even across supplements. I'm almost embarrassed to say it, but I miss 4E magic items.
And actually, just monsters in general. The way 4E handled them was genius. I wouldn't have changed anything.
I'm conflicted about 4E's saving throws. I hate them because they're blatantly video-gamey. However, they were better than random spell durations because they replaced tracking effect timers. Now, personally, I like narrative timers on spells: a long spell works until sunset, or until you eat or sleep, or until the end of the fight. A short spell works once, or until something distracts or touches you, or until you move. To me, those feel more roleplay-ish, while timer counters feel wargamey. Or videogamey. However, 4E's saving throws were a fabulous idea and worked well.
Finally, I'd get rid of that 'squares' nonsense. I'd measure things in feet or meters, like a real person. Or else I'd use descriptive ranges like a modern RPG. (Like Zones from FATE or 'Immediate', 'Short', 'Long', and 'Very Long' Ranges from Cypher system) I wouldn't take a 5-foot grid element out of my Dungeon Tiles and use it as the standard unit for distance. That's... tacky.
So. 4th edition. You can hate it, or you can love it. Either way, it brought many excellent conventions and mechanics to D&D's body of lore. As for me, I think of it as a spectacular tactical combat game that pretty much leaves roleplaying up to the DM and players. For a well-designed one-shot, though, it's hard to beat 4E for speed and widespread game appeal.
What about you? Do you love 4E or hate it? What is it you find excellent? What infuriates you? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time, game well, my friends.
*If you like 4th edition but want something just a little different, check out 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. It has similar gameplay features, but it also includes narrative game elements that give the game a more story-centric feel. You might like it!