A proper review of Dungeons & Dragons’ latest edition would require several thousand words and a lot more play than I’ve put in so far. For now, I’ll settle for indicating what I think is most important and most interesting by way of brief comments, for good (prefaced with a +) and for ill (prefaced with a −).
+ It’s a game, not a simulation. Whether or not this is good is a matter of taste, but I’m happy because it let the designers simplify several hard-to-manage aspects of the game.
+ It’s a roleplaying game. I would never play a boardgame that is this complex, even if it featured campaign play and character advancement. Character and plot are not the most important aspects of D&D, but they heighten the game-y stakes in a way boardgames can’t manage.
+ DM advice. This is the first DMG to really explain how to be a dungeon master, instead of just supplying DM-oriented rules systems (and magic items). Conversational, direct, simple and relevant advice is littered throughout the book. A boon to new DMs, and a good reminder for us graybeards. The real gold is guidelines on how to prep for a game when you only have one, two, three or four hours.
+ Dynamic encounters. Combat where movement is tactically important, and set dressing that provides combatants with options. Not new, exactly, but explicitly called out as the thing to be done, with tips and examples. Traps that play a dynamic role in combat, too.
+ Team strategy. 3.x was mostly about the awesome individual, while 4e focuses on teamwork. This helps foster dynamic battles, too.
+ In-play tactics. What I liked even less than the individualism in 3.x was the focus on pre-play strategy in the form of character builds. In 4e, combat prowess is mostly about in-play tactics. Again, this supports dynamic play.
+ Push, Pull & Slide. An obvious idea, but it does a lot to avoid “line up and slug it out” combats.
+ Page 42. Page 42 of the Dungeon Master’s guide has the understated, but very cool, guidelines for unconventional actions in combat; that is, stunting. One page is all it takes to tell the DM how to handle a PC that wants to swing from a chandelier or kick a chair into an opponent. It tells you to make that stuff cool and effective, too.
+ Encounter design. I have room for improvement, but it is possible to create balanced, interesting encounters on the fly in 4e.
+ Monster design. In a pinch, I could stat up a new monster during a short break in play. Once you know the direction you want to go in, it rarely takes more than 15 minutes to stat up an idea, and 5 minutes is not uncommon. The Monster Manual isn’t redundant, but it’s possible to run a session without it, too.
− Trap design. Sadly, the trap design rules got cut at the last minute from the DMG. Then again, the design guidelines published in Dragon magazine recently were uninspired, too. Comprehensive trap design guidelines would be a huge boon to DMs.
+ Monster roles. This is a small thing, but the added level of transparency makes it easier to run a combat quickly and smoothly.
+ Minions. A great way to let the PCs look like action heroes, and a great way to stage huge battles.
− Solo brutes. The flipside of minions are solos, monsters that are intended to act as an entire encounter by themselves. Unfortunately, a single monster drains some of the dynamism from the system, and fights can go on. Brutes do a lot to exaggerate these effects.
+ Multiple stat blocks for most types of monster. A kobold is not just a kobold. He may be a Kobold Dragonshield or a Kobold Slinger or a Kobold Dragonpriest. Classic monsters don’t get stale in an encounter or two, and you don’t have to spend an hour leveling each one up to get there.
+ Shifty & Mob Attack. Which is to say that the humanoid races are no longer one fungible whole differentiated only by fluff and hit dice. Kobolds have different powers, and therefore different tactics, than Gnolls, which are different than Hobgoblins, which are different than Goblins, which are different than Dwarfs.
+ Dragons. Dragons are a credible, if tough, foe at any level of play, and you’re not beating up on hatchlings at low levels, either. It only makes sense, what with their status as the marquee monster in the game.
− Not enough types of monster. 3-10 monsters of each level isn’t enough, especially at the lowest levels. A new DM has to lean heavily on goblins and kobolds, or else leap into monster design right away. You can pick monsters from a 4-5 level span, so it’s not a complete disaster, but in the long run things could get stale.
+ Class Powers. Character customization, cool colour and tactical decisions in one nifty package. 3.x feats writ large.
− Cramped PHB. Just as the Monster Manual could do with some more entries, the PHB really leaves you wanting more. More feats, more powers, more magic items and more mundane equipment. More rituals, even. It’s more than 300 pages, but it would not be flabby even at 500 pages.
− 30 Levels. The cause of both of this problem and the thinly populated Monster Manual is that the game tackles 30 levels right out of the gate. If the game only had 20 levels, like core 3.x, the same number of everything would feel a lot more luxurious.
− Potions. The worst offender of the magic item crunch is potions. There are only three, and they are all healing potions. This is a terrible impression to give players new to D&D.
+ Fewer bunk builds. 3.x’s designers have stated publicly that they included sub-optimal choices in order to emphasize system knowledge as a skill; players could make themselves ineffective during character creation. 4e’s designers have tried to avoid this – as humans they can’t possibly balance every power and feat – which makes this edition more newbie friendly, and more suitable for casual play.
+ Rituals. While the old school element of solving problems with utility spells is fun, it’s also a pain to adjudicate as a DM, and in many games it is a huge factor in Wizards/Magic-Users overshadowing the rest of the party. Making utility spells non-combat by imposing long casting times and monetary costs is a simple, if heavy-handed, cure.
− The skill system. From the suggested DCs, to the implementation of Skill Challenges to the swinginess of 1d20 (which is the root of a lot of the other problems), everything about the system has led me to start work on an overhaul from the ground up.
+ Skill training. The one exception to this is the removal of skill points in favour of training. It reduces handling time in character creation, gives DMs a clear some ways a player wants his character to be cool, and reduces the variability in the skill system. The loss of flexibility in character design is a small, and in many ways illusory, loss by comparison.
+ The concept of skill challenges. The system’s deficiencies aside, the idea of skill challenges, and the underlying principles that the system fails to implement, are long overdue, and add an extra, welcome dimension to the game.
+Reference lists. Generally, you don’t have to dig through the text of the rules to find the important bits. Instead, the big stuff gets pulled out into bulleted lists. A real time saver, and one of the most overlooked improvements in 4e’s print design.
+ Grappling. One of the most important areas where game over simulation has led to better play. Everything is handled like a normal attack, except for the effects.
+ Opportunity Attacks. I loathe the burden of trying to remember what does and what does not provoke an Attack of Opportunity (worst name for a game mechanic ever) in 3.x. 4e drops it to three easy-to-remember triggers. I miss a bit of the colour and realism, but not enough to go back.
− The name Opportunity Attacks. Less cumbersome than Attacks of Opportunity, but every bit as ugly.
+ Reactions & Interrupts. As old as Magic: the Gathering, but a good hook for creating effects.
+ Combat Advantage. A nice bit of design. The concept of combat advantage takes several conditions, and wraps one element – defensive disadvantage – in a bow. It also cuts down on math, since multiple combat advantages do not stack.
− Stealth in combat. The rules for hiding in the middle of combat are confusing and possibly overpowered. There’s errata on them already, too. I understand the rationale, but I think it needed to be handled in a different way.
+ Shift. No real difference from five-foot step in 3.x, but the change in label helps change the mindset (oh, it must be five feet/one square), freeing it up for use in more interesting powers and effects. Its one syllable instead of three, and evocative, to boot.
− Action Points. Like Skill Challenges, a concept that sounds good, but is let down by the design. A resource that accumulates as you proceed through your day, countering the pull toward resting after every encounter, is good, but Action Points are just a bit dull, and don’t even do their intended job very well.
− Hardwired tiers. Heroic, paragon and epic tiers are not just a label for some guidelines on adventure design. They have real rules effects, and I find some of them jarring. The jury’s still out, but at this distance I don’t like it.
+ Points of light. Humongous dungeons smack in the middle of otherwise peaceful kingdoms and duchies – to say nothing of quasi-fascist empires – has always been the biggest “huh” trope of D&D for me, bordering on a showstopper at times. The Points of Light setting assumption fixes this for me.
EDIT: typo fixed