Why I’m (Mostly) done with 4th Edition

Posted on August 21, 2012 by

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This is the first of my reposts from FraniacDM. I should be posting one with each new blog post, when appropriate.

It’s true. I’m saying it here for the first time: I am (mostly) done with Fourth Edition. I don’t mean I’ll never play Fourth again; I actually hope to play it a few more times. But I am fully prepared to move on to the Next edition, and if that doesn’t appeal to me or my players, I am prepared to return to 3.5, or, more likely, Pathfinder. I’m also excited to play a lot of other RPGs, especially the Unisystem, which I adore for its simplicity and fun.

Why am I abandoning Fourth Edition D&D? Well, for one, I’m a bit burnt out on it. Maybe this long break I’m talking will restore my enthusiasm for it, but, frankly, I’m not convinced. After running multiple campaigns, one for more than a year, and playing in a number of campaigns, my enthusiasm has waned significantly.

I think the system was better when we, as players, had not conquered it so. The system has constantly had to evolve to keep up with a growing player skill. Forums that define exactly how to build the perfect class define our character creation too much. I play with a fantastic group, and we are not power gamers, but the ever growing difficulty of the system, combined with a push for challenging encounters, makes us optimize our characters, even when we don’t want to.

But let’s make a list of what defines Fourth, and why I’m leaving it:

1. Powers: Probably the defining characteristic of Fourth Edition was the introduction of class powers. I still remember to this day my impression on opening the Players Handbook; I vividly remember seeing the art for the Ranger, and noticing page after page of these strange bars in green, red, and grey. Where were the spells lists? Where were the level charts? Gone, replaced by a unified system of powers, constant across classes.

My second reaction, after stunned: Optimistic. Highly so. It was, and remains, a novel, fascinating decision to balance the classes and make sure everyone, from the fighter to the wizard, had options.

The Upside: Everyone had equal options. No one was supposed to outpower the others. Clerics had prayers that allowed them to attack while healing, fighters could unload fantastic attacks that grabbed and controlled their enemies, while rogues had their acrobatics and stealth built into their attacks. Wizards still had spells, but they also got to use weapons in the form of Wands, Staves, and etc…

Powers can make a character feel incredibly powerful, badass, and fun. Unlocking powers at almost every level makes leveling fun. And powers definitely made fighters more fun to play than in previous editions.

“I am perfectly happy with three descending basic attacks, thank you very much!”

The Downside:  The problem is that powers become far too routine: Each character finds the proper combination of encounter powers, and unloads them in the first few rounds. Almost in the same order for every fight. The game play encourages this, and does not encourage mixing the powers up each fight, no matter how different the fights are, really. Once you get a nova in place, you nova.

When we first started playing fourth ed we didn’t always rely on powers. My players would try different options. I remember a fight against a swarm of crawling hands. The players threw a tent over it, and threw a torch on the tent. That was awesome. Now, it’s far better to use a close burst five that dazes, because it’s far more effective. This is especially true once we leave heroic tier.

Powers are better than more creative options, almost always. A system that allows for more DM approval and player creativity allows for more dynamic encounters. I want my fighter to be able to grab someone and use them as a shield against their allies because he decides to do that. In Fourth if he wants to do that, he takes the brawler build. Once he uses the encounter power that lets him do that, he cannot do it again. And I’m over that.

Also, I miss spell lists. I loved the fact that wizards didn’t just get more powerful when they leveled; they had to find new spells. I like Vancian magic, but apparently that’s like, the worst thing in the world according to the WotC forums.

The RPG equivalent of “Mein Kampf”, according to the WOTC forums.

Oh, and finally, the most important part: Powers did not balance characters in DnD. Some classes simply far outshine others, even in the class based, pre-essentials world.

Just a few.

1.5: Encounter Powers, Healing Surges, and Milestones:Those seemingly innocuous red bars are what really does the game in for me, enough that they get their own bullet, with the related healing surge and action point/milestone. I’ll explain:

The Upside: You get to do something every encounter, no matter how many fights you’ve had in a day. You heal after every fight, so you can continue to fight. And you’re rewarded for not taking an extended rest.

The Downside: They make fluid combat impossible. What do I mean by that? The definition of an encounter, made solid by the encounter power and surges, makes it impossible to flow from non-combat to combat. It breaks the day up into “combat encounters” and “everything else”. It makes it feel like a console RPG, entering into “fight mode!” complete with the soundtrack (which I am very guilty of supporting)
I hate solid encounters, and I have been running them for years. I’m tired of planning around encounters, with group A (level+1) Group B (Level -2) Group C (Elite guards! Level +3) and Group D (Solo, level +2). If a party breaks into a temple, they will most likely fight the groups in that order, and take a five minute rest between each one.

Pictured: My D&D group’s hardest fight!

If the party breaks into a temple, I want it fully inhabited, with different people in different rooms. Depending on who they alert when, they’ll fight different groups at different times at different rates. They’ll try different strategies to keep from fighting all at once. They’ll fall back and lock a door to get a chance to heal up and get ready for the guards again.  Fluid, flexible, and fun. Encounter powers and healing surges, which necessitate  an encounter system, ruin this. More than anything, I think they are what force us to have long, separate encounters, and remove immersion in favor of compartmentalized playing.

2. Monsters:Monsters are another defining characteristic of Fourth: Organized into Normal, Elite, Solo, and Minion, with their own powers, and their own uniformity.

The Upside: As a DM, monsters have been my favorite part of fourth. Levels vs HD, Elites and minions, everything about them was to make it easier for the DM to design encounters. The best part? Every power built into their stat block. THANK PELOR. No more looking up spells in the players handbook for the ogre magi your party is fighting; now, all you need is to look at the ogre magi to see what spells he has. Sure, he only has three powers instead of a whole list of spells he can cast, but his entire purpose is to die within a few rounds, so he doesn’t need more than that!

Plus the ease of leveling monsters, the arrival of the minion, everything about monsters in fourth was an improvement. If Wizards takes just one thing from 4th, I hope it’s monster design.

The Downside: Monsters became a bit predictable, just like players. The ease of monster powers meant they couldn’t really break out of their mode, either. Solos had lots of problems being challenging (here’s a hint: just give them more than one turn. Done.). The fact that all monsters had their powers in their stats block was wonderful, but it also meant that if you fought a rival wizard, he wasn’t going to be casting the same spells your wizard was. While I don’t miss building NPC wizards and having to look up every spell they had, I’d like to see some midpoint. An ogre magi with a few spells, in his stats block, but all of them spells that the wizard on your party has access to. In fact, that’s the way the wizard gains new spells: by looting the ogre magi’s spellbook after he is killed!

They’ll just have to kill him first. No biggie.

3. Items

The Upside: I like that spellcasters get implements that channel their spells.

The Downside: Pretty much everything else about items. My buddy over at DungeonRemastered has already written about it. I think the fact that they put the magic items in the Player’s Handbook really was a warning sign about the importance of magic items in the game.

4. Assumed graph based combat:

The Upside: It harkens back to DnD’s origin as a miniature battle game. It allows tactically minded players to play Bards and Warlords and have a lot of fun sliding characters around the table. It makes combat clear for all players: How far away is that orc? Simple: count the squares. Finally, dungeon tiles can be beautiful and help immersion, and I love minis and collecting minis.

Though not all minis.

The Downside: Length of play is a huge one. Taking time to set up the field. Taking a long time with your turn to know exactly where that slide will take your character. Will it take you out of the monsters aura, but still close enough to include your allies in the healing burst? Can you move in the exact way to avoid an opportunity attack? I know DnD does not resemble real combat at all, but the indecisiveness of movement can really kill the immediacy of combat and the feeling of immersion. Once again, my players are good enough that the wizard might include his allies in the fireball, the rogue might provoke an opportunity attack just because he doesn’t want to take a 12 minute turn, but it’s still the system that does not encourage this behavior.

5. The Uniformity of Everything: Fourth Edition’s truest weakness, in my opinion.

The Upside: Anyone can DM. Rules are rarely argued over. A stun does this, a slide does this, a shift does this. K. Players are supposedly balanced because they have the same amount of powers.

The Downside: We’ve basically stripped the DM of creative control, in a way. Discretion is barely ever needed, because everything is so regulated. I think that’s what people really mean when they say Fourth is like a videogame; the uniformity of everything has made it more sterile. More mechanized.

With uniform statuses, effects, and saving throws, everything can be maximized and optimized. It becomes an arms race: Players don’t want to be stunned, so they have to take feats and items that allow them to avoid that. But then monsters need ways to get around that to keep up the challenge…it goes on and on. Plus a monster can only do a certain amount of things: Daze, Stun, Blind, etc… It takes out a lot of the flavor and flexibility.

Uniform powers are supposed to balance classes, but they have a tendency to make classes feel similar, with only the technical abilities of roles (marks, healing, etc), distinguishing them. I don’t want balanced classes anymore. The wizard should be terribly powerful at blowing away groups of monsters, but she should also be cut down the moment an enemy gets to her. The fighter should be able to hack his way through a group of bandits, but plate mail cannot stop a magic spell aimed at him. Clerics should destroy undead, dammit, but shouldn’t outshine fighters at combat. And the rogue should be more than just the person who deals damage. They should find interesting, difficult ways to get that sneak attack, but that sneak attack should destroy their enemy. Meanwhile, they should be using a wide array of skills to help the party, or maybe just themselves.

I’m excited for Next because WotC have stated that they wanted a very basic, minimal set of rules, and modules that can be added to it. More interesting items, less player powers, and less power creep means more player creativity and DM discretion supported. The option to switch between graph based and Theatre of the Mind. Yes, some characters may be better in graph based combat, but they will get their opportunities to shine because of that.

Here’s the final line, and why I’m done with Fourth Edition Dungeon and Dragons: I have loved it for a long time. It has been a fun, enjoyable system. But, as a few people have pointed out from the start: It just never felt like Dungeons and Dragons. It has always felt more like a video game. Smarter, more balanced, and easier to run (in a way) than earlier editions, but also more rigid and trapping.

I want to go out with a bang, if possible. I want an end to some of the plot lines I’ve developed over the years, and combine those with the plots my friends have developed.  I want that to be DnD Fourth’s swan song, at least for me as a DM.

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