Thirty-eight Highlights and Lowlights of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

In appraisals, role-playing games on September 4th, 2008 at 8:00 am

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

  1. Not all, but a lot of your points mirror my own. Of course my opinion comes from reading, not playing as of yet, as well as tons of podcast coverage and some reviews and actual play reports. Overall, my opinion of fourth is very positive, and it is probably my favourite edition out of 2.0 (with and without the Player’s Option’s books), 3.0, and 3.5 (I have played plenty of 1.0 and Red Box, but not since I was quite young, so I can’t judge them as well). What is your final conclusion?

  2. Ex,

    Well, the fact that I’m running it is a huge thumbs up, really. While it is a much easier sell for my group than the other stuff I want to run, so is 3.5, and I won’t touch that with a ten foot pole and a radiation suit.

  3. Well, actual play really is the best recommendation, so point well taken. I know members of my group play it on a day that I am not available, and they seem to really enjoy it as well. I have the hard sell problem with my group as well. They want to play D&D and WoD, whereas I want to play a little bit of everything. Oh well, the gaming is normally good, just not with the variety I would prefer.

  4. The Attack of Opportunity is the most ill-conceived and poorly-implemented thing in 3.x. I can only imagine that abstracting them more for 4e would only make them worse. Simulation or not, you can’t stray too far from the reality of the world before things just feel silly.

  5. Well, they do hit the high points (ranged attacks and moving away when not in a defensive stance), and I actually understand the simulative point under the tactical patina of the original implementation. It’s about spotting a glaring, but transitory, opening in your opponent’s guard and launching and exploitative attack.

    One of the big problems with D&D, and RPGs in general, for that matter, is that the underlying logic of system rarely gets explained, even when it’s there.

    And, well, those things will feel silly to you and yours. Different strokes, etc. I’m okay with more abstraction, as long as it is in service of a better play experience. From what you’ve told me before of your taste in RPGs, though, you’d probably see 4e as a huge step backwards from 3.x.

  6. Yup. Even 3.x with its move action, standard action, 5-foot step is almost too boardgamey. I like the system being more open (do what I want, fight how I want, contribute to the team how I want, grow my character how I want) 4.x went way too far in the other direction. I can only assume that they weren’t trying to drag 3.x’ers along, but to grab the attention of miniatures gamers, etc.

  7. Wow! I just sa that WotC withdrew their license for 3rd party use of the d20 trademark! Kind of a slap in the face.

  8. Yes and no. They can’t pull the OGL, which is the important one for publishing 3.x compatible stuff. A lot of third party publishers didn’t even bother with the d20 license any more.

    The current version of the GSL, the 4e equivalent of the d20 license, is scary, though, and I would never publish anything under it. It seems WotC has gotten that message (from other people, of course 😉 and they are revising it, presumably with an eye to liberalizing it a little.

  9. It’s worth noting that a shift isn’t always just 1 square. For example, my Rogue has a utility power (Tumble) that lets me shift 3 once an encounter. That kind of tactical movement is awesome (it’s still a shift, so no Opportunity Attack), and it really impresses the rest of the party.

  10. If you haven’t heard it yet, you should listen to Clyde Rhoer’s interview of Mike Mearls about the design philosophy that went into 4E, specifically the decision to put game play over simulation.

  11. katre,

    Yep. That was kind of my point, but it got a bit muddled when I actually wrote it.


    Yep, I’ve listened to Clyde’s interview, and highly recommend it. It’s a bit of a shame that the pre-release marketing didn’t focus on the stuff Mike says in it. It wouldn’t have pacified the critics, but it would have given them a lot less ammunition for their complaints.

  12. I think the comments are great, I agree with almost everything. Except that I like the phrase “opportunity attack”, and although it was somewhat annoying that they built level 1-30 and skimped on monsters and magic items, it didn’t bother me too much since I could understand that were legitimate reasons to want to complete the entire game system before working on the supplemental stuff.

  13. I think the only reason the game needs 30 levels, as opposed to 20, say, is to make a campaign long enough while retaining the level up pace the designers wanted. If you go back to something like 10-12 encounters plus 1-2 quests per level, that would slow things down, but make the campaign arc suitably epic.

    Of course, 20 levels also messes with the Heroic/Paragon/Epic thing too, but there are ways around that problem.

  14. I certainly agree that the level scale has been “expanded” in 4th edition. The same was true in 3rd edition compared to 1st (in the sense that you needed a much higher level to fight the same monsters). They probably wanted a faster “level up” pace, as you say, to make the game faster. Really, if you look at the structure of the characters, it would actually be more natural to combine the even and odd levels and have a total of 15 levels.

    But the number of levels doesn’t affect the space taken up in the books. It is the number of powers that does that. And you can’t reduce the number of levels with powers without substantial alterations to the structure of the game (for instance, if you cut down the number of levels which give you encounter powers, without changing the rest of the game, then epic characters might be forced to take 1st-level encounter powers that are worse than their at-will powers).

  15. With fewer levels you could offer, say, one more power choice per level and still save enough space to add some more material elsewhere. The space crunch happened because they had to provide a bare minimum number of choices at each level in order to provide at least some sort of meaningful choice. I think they only cleared that bar on a technical level, though. I’d like to see real choice of powers for each build not just for the class as a whole. Say three per build per level, or two per build per level, plus one that fits any build.

    Similarly, while the number of monsters available overall would be the same, the number that are useful at party level X would go up. They’re better off than powers (since Fighters don’t exactly require different monsters than paladins do) I think, but complaints of “kobolds AGAIN???” are probably pretty common at low levels.

  16. Well, the Adventurer’s Vault was the first supplement released, so now there are plenty of magic items. They are publishing supplements at an incredible rate. Pretty soon we’ll be snowed under with options.

    Actually, I think you are only likely to say “kobolds again???” if you play Keep on the Shadowfell, which insists on giving you the same type of monster over and over again. There seems to be a disconnect between the very good advice in the DMG to make exciting adventures with lots of movement and variety, and the published modules with repeated fights against the same monsters in cramped spaces.

    I’ve used almost entirely monsters from the monster manual, and there are more than enough to have every fight have monsters the party has never seen before (indeed, the party has never fought a kobold yet). After all, there are only 8-10 encounters per level, and there are 33 monsters listed for level 1+2. The only problem is that when you go looking for a very specific type of monster – like “a level 5 artillery that would fight with ettercaps in a spider web” – it can be tough to find.

  17. Bear in mind, this post predates the release of AV. Besides, pleading supplements doesn’t entirely convince me, the same as pleading forum support from the game designer doesn’t excuse a spotty description of procedures of play in a designer-published game (or any other RPG for that matter) in my eyes. Doubly so in a game that costs so much just to buy the core. Supplements should be gravy, ideally, not essential. Also, it takes three books, Martial, Arcane and Divine Power, to address the powers (and to a lesser extent, feats) situations.

    I readily admit, opinions will vary on the number of monsters (and I definitely agree about WotC’s published adventures). How many monsters that you designed yourself supplement your supply in the early stages of your campaign, though?

  18. My reasoning is this:

    1) When I design a game, I think it makes sense to concentrate first on making sure all of the core game mechanics work, making just enough of the variety stuff (powers, monsters, magic items, feats) to make sure everything works correctly. This seems to be what the D&D designers did. It should prevent the typical problem where you build the game for levels 1-10, then when you design higher levels you discover you should have made the lower levels work differently.
    2) Once I finished the core rules, I would start cranking out the extras.
    3) It seems logical to publish the core rules as soon as they are ready, rather than waiting for all the extras. This lets people get the product earlier and start providing feedback. And while the extras are skimpy, they are more than sufficient to play the game.
    4) For most games, I’m not a big fan of having an inadequate core set and endless supplements, as it seems like the designers write a lot of words, then hide a few key items in each supplement to make you buy them all. But in the case of D&D, the books are filled to the brim with stuff I actually want, and (in my opinion) at a good value too. So I can’t complain that they are a waste of money – even though it requires a lot of books to include everything, those books don’t have much wasted space.
    5) All I can complain about, then, is that not enough stuff has been published. But books cannot be written at unlimited speed. So the only way to publish more at one time, is to not publish until everything is ready. I’m happy to get stuff early rather than wait for everything to be finished.

    As far as monsters, here is level 1:
    1) Skeleton, Zombies, Skeleton and Zombie minions
    2) Elf Scout, Elf Archers, Grey Wolves
    3) Hobgoblin Soldier & Grunts, Goblin Blackblades & Warriors
    4) Diplomatic encounter – Kobold wyrmpriest & dragonshields, spire drakes
    5) Kruthik adult, young, hatchlings
    6) Ochre jelly, clay scouts
    7) Human bandits, spitting drakes
    8) Kalanin the goblin warlock [constructed from goblin hexer using DMG rules], enchanted goblin skullcleavers

    So only the last encounter has unique monsters. The adventure has a lot of variety, and even if the party later meets undead again, they will be rather different, as you can see from the next adventure:

    1) Gravehounds, tons of zombie rotters
    2) Dwarf bolters (+special terrain)
    3) Aspect of Zorn [unique], Iron Defender, Wraith
    4) Halfling prowler, halfling sneaks, halfling slingers
    5) Skeletons (+trap)

    at this point I’m cheating a bit because I accelerating the characters to level 3, but there were certainly more low-level monsters I never even touched.

    On the other hand, if the players decided they wanted to start over from level 1 and I had to make new low-level adventures, I think you would see a lot of familiar faces. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.

  19. Your 1-4 assume that 30 levels of D&D is etched in stone somewhere. Why not 20 or 25? (make the epic tier 9 levels to the heroic and paragon’s 8, or maybe make heroic 9). I’m sure the pace of leveling up played a role in the decision to go with 30 levels, but I’m not sure it was the right choice.

    I certainly agree with your points 1-4. I just think other design decisions could have been made about the core that would have let them put more options per level in the core rules.

    And that’s a pretty impressive variety of encounters, actually. were you kicking it old school, or did you have a pretty solid plot happening there? I assume the latter, in which case I take my hat off to you sir 🙂

  20. I’m still not totally sure what way you would suggest reducing the number of levels. Do you mean, using the levels as-is, but declaring level 20 to be the maximum, and throwing away all of the powers listed for levels 22,23,25,27,and 29? This is certainly plausible. I can’t really say whether 20 or 30 levels is better. You could make good arguments either way.

    My adventure isn’t a random dungeon crawl, but it isn’t “tight”, I was trying to focus on maximum variety of encounters. I added my adventure to my blog links, so you can take a look at if you like.

    I like your blog, I added a link to it on my blog.

  21. I’d lean toward compressing what’s there down into 20-25 levels, myself. Lopping off the top end would lose a lot of iconic material, including the big O (Orcus). Actually, I think any such effort would probably end up as a combination of the two.

    I should mention that this is strictly a space-related move. I only dislike 30 levels because there isn’t enough pagecount in the core books to support it with as much depth and variety as I’d like. Alas, increasing the page count would probably make the game exorbitantly expensive.

    Thanks for the link to your adventure, I’ll definitely be mining it for stuff to steal inspirational material 🙂

    And thanks for the link from your blog. I’m quite fond of GDF 🙂

  22. I should explain that by “chopping off” the top 10 levels, what I really mean is defining level 20 to be “top epic”, but having the same power level and general game statistics as the current level 20 (except that you’d have to do something funky with the paragon and epic powers to make them fit in). Then all the monsters would be rebuilt at 2/3 their current level (so Orcus would still exist), and iconic powers and magic items from levels >20 would be redesigned as less powerful versions at lower levels.

    This is what I assumed you were thinking of, as it would result in less levels of powers but potentially more powers per level, and by compressing the level scale, you would have 50% more monsters and 50% more magic items available at each level.

  23. Yep, this is the general thrust of my plan. If anything, the 3.x model of adding on 10 more levels, with rules hacks to make them (kinda sorta, if you squint real hard) work is worse than the current situation, even considering how much work has gone into making the math scale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: