Monday, December 31, 2012

Retro Review: 4th Edition DnD

It's important for any reviewer to do the following:

1) Get the game on the table and play
2) Remember that any game, no matter the system, is only as good as its players and DM
3) Speaking to D&D specifically: Remember that 1st edition players hated 2nd edition and 2nd edition players thought 3rd edition's skill system killed roleplaying.

I'm an old school, Fighting Man, white box gamer from 1978 and have seen the industry wax and wane over the decades. In many ways, I felt the same way about v3.0 back in 2000 as I did about my first look at 4th. A friend brought a copy of the 3rd ed Player's Handbook to a LARP I was running back in the day. I took one flip through and handed it back scoffing, "This isn't D&D."

Then I got 3.0 on the table and I was hooked. So many problems fixed--logical stat bonuses, a skills system that worked, classes balanced against each other, the Death of THACO and don't get me started on the art (Todd Lockwood is my hero). After a few games I realized 3.0 had its own problems; Rangers, Bards, Monks, and Paladins were less interesting than I'd hoped, and Clerics were outrageous powerhouses. There were so many issues, actually, that only 3 years later, v3.5 was released (to much grumbling from the net trolls of the day).

I blustered at 4th edition for a lot of reasons, many of the same reasons people in other reviews point out even. Yet after reading through the core rules several times and getting the game on the table, I'm finding myself in a similar position as I was with v3.*. I'm coming to love it. My opinion on the complaint that "now it's a miniatures game" is: D&D was born from a mini's game, and what made it into a roleplaying game was imagination.

What at first appear as limited combat options, aren't. Where a fighter's options were limited to "swing your weapon (read: Longsword) or come up with something random and have the DM make a rule", they now make balanced and effective combatants and defenders. Combats are more dramatic and suspenseful, with teamwork being the main focus of any encounter. For example, Save or Die/Save or Turn to Stone situations have been replaced by suspense-building mechanics that involve the rest of your party.

Non-combat in any game is about roleplaying--put the dice aside for a while and focus on the story. Non-combat is about heavy RP punctuated by the occasional die roll. Combat is about tactics and dice rolling punctuated by the occasional description of how you did what you did. Balancing deep, meaningful roleplaying with fast-paced dramatic teamwork-filled combats is what DnD (or I should say D&D) has always been about.

Clearly and unarguably, 4th and 3rd are as different as 3rd and 2nd. (At the time people believed 1st and 2nd were worlds apart, but with hindsight we can see 2nd is more like v1.5 than not.) What 3rd did was fix 2nd editions problems by revamping the game from the ground up. 4th has done the same. 

There are a lot of things I wish they had done differently, like add more flavor text and history to monsters, races, and classes, as well as giving us original artwork instead of recycling pieces we'd seen for eight years. Putting in a comprehensive index is also a must. Non-combat racial and class abilities would have been welcome. I also wish they had put more emphasis on the idea that just because a power is described a certain way doesn't mean that's how YOUR character does it. Growing up on games like Champions trained me to tweak special effects like a pro, but new players may not understand that.

Many of the complaints I've read come from not getting the game on the table (believe it or not, people have bagged on it without playing it), playing with an unenthusiastic DM or from not understanding how the designers adapted previous rules to the new system. For example, "where are my out-of-combat spells, like Comprehend Languages?" is answered by the new ritual and scroll mechanic. I encourage anyone to playtest the game with someone who has read the rules well, not so the rules are followed to the letter, but so that everyone knows what really works and what still needs houseruling skills to make your own.

"Convert? Maybe."
Originally posted on in September, 2008
Edited for reposting.

Addendum: Blog on the skill challenges mechanic so often ridiculed by 3rd edition players: In Defense of Skill Challenges


  1. Yes, 4th Edition did balance all the classes among each other. So much so that there really wasn't much to distinguish one class from another when their "powers" pretty much had the same effects (push, pull, etc.,) The magic items became bland and lost their fantastic flavor. The 4th edition games I played were the Living Forgotten Realms games. After about 1 year of playing, the people running the games rebelled against the system. The amount of errata was horrendous. It was like all us consumers were still play-testing WoTC's game, yet we were paying for the priviledge.

    I stopped playing 4th Edition after they released their Essentials line. It was very clear to me the company didn't know what they wanted to do with their game. I really wanted to like it, but like you said in your review, it had it's share of problems. The game really seemed combat-focused and role-playing was even reduced to a mechanic with the Skill Challenges. Instead of just saying and doing something that should come naturally from your gut.

    Alas, it's over now. I would like to play games with more old-school flavor, but it's hard to find people to play a game unless it is being "officially" released and supported here and now. So, I have to play and run Pathfinder instead.

    1. Here you go:

  2. I agree, the Essentials line jumped the shark for me as well.

    I ran a campaign converting 3rd edition's Red Hand of Doom for 2 years and we had a blast. I was able to create concepts I've never been able to simulate in any other edition, which is what really surprised me. The minion concept worked particularly well with Red Hand's never-ending HORDE of baddies and led to many dramatic combats.

    "role-playing was even reduced to a mechanic with the Skill Challenges. Instead of just saying and doing something that should come naturally from your gut."

    I never had this experience, though this is a common complaint. We roleplayed plenty and I loved using skill challenges. I put together a particularly fun one involving the players escaping a burning town in front of a horde they could not stop. I'll see if I can post it. I mostly used skill challenges for physical tests like chase scenes and for interactions with non-important NPCs (like bribing guards or sneaking past sentries). I wouldn't use them for a cornerstone social interaction, though. In fact, I loved skill challenges so much that I'd incorporate the mechanic into any Pathfinder game I may run.

    One houserule I used was that no one could describe a skill the same way twice. They were forced to come up with new and interesting ways to use their skills or I wouldn't let them roll. For example, during the scene where the characters were running from the burning town, one character used his Nature skill to gain a success by having the party run through some particularly heavy smoke to hide their scent from the tracking Gnolls.

    "it's hard to find people to play a game unless it is being "officially" released and supported here and now. So, I have to play and run Pathfinder instead."

    Pathfinder is being supported here and now, though, and is a great system. So that's something.

  3. I actually thought the Essentials rules presented more thought-out and interesting versions of the main classes in many cases, and did a better job of getting back to the clarity of class roles. I thought 4e came into trouble the moment they decided that you needed constant errata to keep up with the game, exacerbated by the plethora of feats and classes that continued to come out. Stripping down and narrowing options made it more possible for players to master rules and make meaningful choices.

    1. I agree with you, Doug. Essentials was a tighter version. It doesn't negate Greg's point, though. It jumped the shark because it was almost an entirely new system trying to merge with the previous system--effectively becoming DnD 5th edition. It wasn't even v4.5 because the class and rule changes were so significant. It scattered the system and made 4th ed unfocused.

      I understand the errata issue, but I didn't find anything broken enough to be an issue because we aren't Min-Max players. The new classes were all fun in their own ways and required only a small bit of house-ruling. 4th was IDEAL for Dark Sun and I loved the short campaign I played in. The choice to have 'healers' of all flavors meant all martial, or all arcane or all psionic campaigns were not only doable, they were hella fun. I would play 4th again with the right group (probably as an introduction for younger players), but am often trying to find ways to incorporate what they were trying to do into my next campaigns.

      And really, I just miss Warlords.

  4. The Essentials line is what made me LIKE 4e. Essentials feels more like original D&D. The regular books are the ones with tons of rules and far more powers. Essentials plays almost entirely off of basic attack and uses a "stance" to enhance it. I think it was essentials that gave WoTC the idea to make NEXT be a game where you can dial up or down the game complexity on the fly and together. Pathfinder on the other hand has so many splat books now that it's as bad as 3.5 got! You wanna talk about a complex mini game - Pathfinder is it. I only have 2 BIG complaints about 4e: 1) the "conditions" whether good or bad especially if they are that round only instead of whole encounter make the game too complex and add far too much paperwork. Sadly, it is so intricate to the system that it can't be houseruled out without breaking the whole game. and 2) the initiative system changes so much and is so intricate due to "strikers" (gawd what an aweful way to call Rangers and rogues, the death of the "thief" finally happend in 4e sadly) that it makes the game impossible on playbypost. Both of these points KILL the games on pbp or create unending arguments. And frankly an RPG was born out of turn based chess plus dialogue which you should be able to do on a message bnoard without a problem. Heck I used to do it around a campfire without dice!

    1. I absolutely agree that Essentials had more of a 3rd ed feel (I suspect your use of 'original' is referring to 3.*/Pathfinder as opposed to OD&D). Conditions were definitely a handful and the only way to handle that at the table was with special markers, which would be a nightmare in PbP. I'm not sure what part of the initiative system you're referring to. I also had an issue with lumping Rangers with the dps machines.

      You can see some of the tools I used here: