“It’s Not D&D” – 4th Edition Analysis and Apologia

First off, let me start by saying a couple of things.

  1. I love 4th Edition D&D.
  2. I love 3rd Edition D&D, including 3.5.

There. Now you know where I’m starting from.

I’ve seen some comments on forums and such about how 4th Edition D&D is not D&D. People point to a number of things to justify this claim, from the loss of Vancian “fire-and-forget” magic to the fact that houscats can no longer kill 1st-level wizards with one swipe of the claws. Most of the people posting these… let’s call them discussions, because the word “diatribe” is needlessly inflammatory… feel very deeply and strongly about the points their making.

They make these points with varying degrees of skill and lucidity, like any internet discussion. Some are well-reasoned analyses of differences, some are foam-specked and profanity-laden rants. Both types often bring up interesting thoughts and opinions.

I’m going to wade in here, because I just read a blog post from one of my players here*, where he talks about why he feels that 4E is not D&D. I think it’s an insightful post, that makes some good claims, so I’m gonna talk about it.

Let’s get this out of the way: 4E is D&D, because Wizards of the Coast, who own the trademark and the intellectual property, say it’s D&D. Any other interpretation is just the wonking of self-perceived-purists of the so-called fanboy elite**.

Having made that somewhat-antagonist statement, I will say that 4E is definitely not the same game that 3E*** was. I would even go so far as to say that 4E is a much bigger departure from 3E than 3E was from 2E, or 2E was from 1E.

Now, to be fair, there was the same kind of outcry back at the launch of 3E, which broke a lot of the unwritten rules of D&D design. Maximum hit points at 1st level, free multiclassing, unified experience point progression for all classes, no racial class or level limitations… all that good stuff. Remember? And then there was the new stuff grafted on, things like feats and skills and prestige classes and funky double weapons. D&D finally owned up to the fact that it was simulating nothing but D&D – a very specific kind of medieval fantasy.

People came around. D&D became a driving force in the market again. Hell, 3E made me start buying D&D stuff again, and even made me run a game.

I think that the success of 3E, despite its real departure from the sacred cows of D&D tradition, showed that people would accept big changes, as long as the changes made for a fun game. And 3E was, and still is, a fun game. Currently, I’m playing in three different 3E games, so you know I love it.

The changes from 3E to 4E were even bigger. About the only things that stayed the same were the names of things and the basic die mechanic. Everything else got a big overhaul – so big that, without the names, you wouldn’t know it was the same game.

Here’s some of the claims made by those criticizing the game, and my response to them:

  • It’s not as gritty. Generally, I take this to mean that your character is not as weak and powerless at lower levels. I would totally agree with that. I just don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Sure, there is an appeal to emulating the sword-and-sorcery books of Leiber and Howard, but D&D hasn’t really done a good job of doing that ever. Firstly, because it’s been predicated on parties of adventurers, and secondly because the hit point mechanic doesn’t do that good a job of modeling realistic combat. However, it is very true that the lower levels are far less desperate and perilous, as long as the DM does a good job of balancing the encounters. Do I miss that sort of thing? Sometimes. On the other hand, it’s fun to have a character who can actually do cool stuff starting right at first level, and doesn’t need to sleep for eight hours after an eighteen-second fight.
  • Too many hit points. This is sort of tied to the above point, but not exclusively. This is one of the main things that makes the combats last longer, at least in number of rounds. Because it’s not just the PCs with more hit points, it’s the monsters, too, while damage output (at least, at lower levels) hasn’t scaled up by the same degree. This means that each fight generally goes on for more rounds than in 3E. The upside is that it makes it more likely that the monsters will get to trot out their special tricks. From the players’ point of view, that may also be the downside. I like the fact that monsters get to do more things, and to be more interesting. It also gives more time for the PCs to do things other than just stand and hit things.
  • Combat is very repetitive. I’ve heard from people that combat in 4E is just your character using the same power or two over and over again until the bad guys fall down. I really don’t get this one. After all, combat in 3E was just using the same attack or two over and over again until the bad guys fall down. Personally, I think the powers add more variety, even at low levels when you have fewer of them. Also, I think the way actions have been structured gives players more incentive to try different things in combat, because you don’t lose your iterative attacks if you move. Still, I’ve read this one on the net, and I’ve had a couple of players mention it to me in person, so they obviously feel that way. I just don’t see why, myself.
  • I hate having to pick a paragon path. Yeah. This one, I’ll go along with whole-heartedly. Paragon paths obviously replace prestige classes from 3E. The one thing that was overlooked, though, was that prestige classes were optional. Paragon paths really aren’t unless you’ve gone full-bore into multiclassing. Now, part of the feeling of constraint may be because we’re still pretty early in the development of the game, so there aren’t as many paragon paths to choose from as we might like. Still, I think it would be better if there was an option for a “purist” paragon path for each class, if you see what I mean.
  • It feels too much like a video game. I’m gonna be blunt, here: if it feels too much like a video game, that’s the fault of the people at the table, not the game. I honestly feel that you can’t blame the system for this one. Now, I’ll admit that they borrowed some ideas from things like World of Warcraft, but they also borrowed from other board, card, and roleplaying games. Some of the things they’ve borrowed work better than others, in my opinion. For example, the exceptions-based approach to powers and abilities (borrowed from Magic: The Gathering, among other games) works very well, letting monster stat blocks stay small and useful, and minimizing the amount people have to shuffle through various books. On the other hand, the marking mechanic (borrowed from the MMORPG idea of aggro) requires a lot more fiddling around in play than I think the advantages warrant. Interesting idea there, but not perfect implementation.
  • It’s just a combat system. That’s just crap. Like most mainstream RPGs, 4E devotes a fair bit of space to combat, because a) that’s where the market is, and b) that’s what requires the most simulationist rules. But 4E, for the first time, starts putting rules around non-combat encounters, as well. The skill challenge rules may not be perfect, but they’re definitely a non-combat set of rules that takes up several pages in the DMG. Now, there’s definitely a real weighting of the powers for characters towards the damage-dealing, combat powers, I will admit. More of a weighting than I might like to see, even among the so-called Utility Powers. But still, it comes down to what you do with the game at the table. If all you run is combat, then the game is gonna look like a combat system. If you mix it up a little more, then it won’t. And to say that there is no support for other types of play just says to me that you haven’t looked at the DMG at all.

In interest of full disclosure, this next list is some of the claims on the pro side of the argument, and what I think about them:

  • Combat is faster. Hmmm. So far, I’m not seeing it. I think each round goes faster, but you wind up with a larger number of rounds per combat, so on the whole, I think it’s a wash. If anything, I find that 4E combat is going slower because neither I nor my players have the mastery of the system that we developed in 3E. That, of course, will be corrected with practice. But I don’t see combat speeding up all that much.
  • Prep is faster for the DM. Yes and no. Customizing something that’s already been done, like updating a published adventure to match the number of characters in your party, is amazingly quick and easy. I love that. Having said that, building an adventure from scratch takes about the same amount of time, I find, though again part of that is lack of mastery of the rules. One thing that sort of complicates things is the linking of treasure to level, rather than to encounters. It pushes a DM to a very linear plot, I find, to make sure that the treasure is appropriate for the characters’ level. Still, that’s not insurmountable – it just takes some juggling, which takes some extra time.
  • Monsters are easier to run. This one I agree with whole-heartedly. I’ll even go a little farther, and say that monsters are also far more interesting to run. Even the lowliest kobold and goblin has a little trick designed to make them memorable to the characters. Fighting a goblin is now substantially different from fighting a kobold. And that’s a really good thing.
  • Running the game in general is easier for the GM. I don’t know. It’s tough to compare, because of that lack of rules mastery in the new system, compared to the acquired rules mastery in the old system. Still, the underlying structure, the new ways defenses are used, and the idea of exception-based abilities all seem to point in that direction. I hope it’s the case. But it’s too soon to tell.
  • Characters get to make interesting choices at each level. Yeah, I think so. There don’t seem to be anymore dead levels for any character. At each level, you get a new power, or feat, or something nice. Having said that, there seems to be optimal builds for each class, which I’m not sure I like. Optimal builds implies sub-optimal builds, which is a sort of tacit constraint on character development. I’m hoping that phenomenon is just a result of the comparatively small number of choices available because the game’s less than a year into it’s published support.

So, there’s my take on the whole thing. I like both systems, probably because they each do different things. In the end, I really find that the group makes the game, not the other way around. As my friend Penny said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that rules systems aren’t that important to the game. They’re just the tools you use to tell the stories you want.”****

This begs the final question: why am I currently running 4E games, and no 3E games? Simple. I’ve done the 3E experience. I ran an eight-year campaign. I’ll gladly play 3E, but I’m not interested in running it anymore. I’ve told my 3E story. Now I want to tell 4E stories.

But I love playing 3E, as Ladimir, Synry, and Dunael will attest.




*It was written back at the beginning of November, but I just read it now. Yeah, I don’t check that blog very often.

**So take that, Michael! 😉

***Take it as read that, whenever I refer to 3E, I’m including 3.5.

****I’m paraphrasing, despite the quotes. She said something that amounted to the same thing. Forgive the misquotation, Penny.

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4 Responses to “It’s Not D&D” – 4th Edition Analysis and Apologia

  1. Fred Hicks says:

    Obviously, I’m on the pro-side.

    Mainly what I have to say is in commentary to the “hm, maybe it’s not faster” perspective…

    Measuring “faster” by number of combat rounds per fight is a nonstarter for me. I measure it instead by “how many fights was I able to have in a session?” Compared to my 3E experience, in 4E it’s between 20% and 100% more than I had in 3E. That’s faster, and suggests to me that at least for my games, the combat rounds (while potentially more numerous, if I accept your indication) are sufficiently faster, at least at my table, that the Rounds * Round Length of 4E is still less than the Rounds * Round Length of 3E.

    Prep being faster — I gotta say, I know that Rob used to take a good 3-4 hours prepping for the 3E game he ran back in the day. These days it takes him about 15-30 minutes, and 30 minutes only if he’s dragging.

    But as you say, some of this may be an element of rules mastery. Having Rob at the table certainly helps. 🙂

  2. Rick Neal says:

    First off, I’m definitely on the pro side, myself. But I’m also on the pro side of 3E, so…

    The reason I measured combat length by Rounds * Round Length model is that I’m finding a real difference in the number of combats I get through in a session between the two games I’m running. In a standard play session (about four hours for us), one group goes through one to two encounters, and the other goes through two to four encounters. There are differences in the group composition, familiarity with RPGs, and amount of off-topic socializing that goes on, all of which contribute to the flow of the game. So, to get a common basis for comparison, I look at individual combats. Averaging between the two, it comes out to about an hour to an hour and a half for a level-appropriate combat, which is pretty much on par with 3E in my experience.

    Now, part of this is player-driven, rather than an artifact of the system: I’ve got some players who will agonize over their turn for five or ten minutes looking for the “right” action, and I’ve got some players who are very new to RPGs and need the extra time to figure out what their characters can and should do, and I’ve got some players who have the attention span of hummingbirds and need to be reminded of what’s going on after the delay of other players taking their turns. Not that I’m complaining: this is just the mix of players in our group, and it produces a particular style of play.

    If faster combat were more valued in my group, I’d be concerned. But it’s not, really, so this is just an observation of what happens at my table, rather than a criticism of the system.

    As far as prep goes, I spend about the same amount of time prepping right now. Part of that is trying to figure out how to use the new rules to produce the effect I want, part of it is trying to figure out what monsters I’m going to use, and part of it is rebuilding all the old tools I had for my 3E prep. See, I’m a really disorganized person, generally, so I wind up being kind of obsessive about my prep work. I don’t like having to look stuff up in the rules in the middle of play, so I type out the stat blocks and rules that I need right in my adventure notes. It’s just my style. As I do this more often, the time is definitely going to shrink. When my document of stat blocks is full, I’ll be able to cut and paste what I need, for example. After I figure out the best way for me to use skill challenges, I’ll need to spend less time experimenting with them. That sort of thing.

    In the end, I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while I think 4E is a great game, and a significant improvement over 3E in a lot of ways that I value highly, I don’t think it’s perfect. But neither is any other game. I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I’m going to keep using it, but it ain’t the philosopher’s stone. It’s just a very nice game system that I enjoy a lot.

  3. Milo says:

    I am not a dedicated gamer, but I have played every version of D&D since way back when. Of all those versions, I find 4E combat to be the most engaging and enjoyable. “Roleplaying”, in terms of interaction and story, can be had in any edition of D&D and is more a factor of the players and the GM than the system.

    I too have compared the system to video game combat only because I have not played many other RPGs and of those that I have, none are even close to the feel of a video game as 4E is. To me, this is a good thing as 4E does not require hours of study and practice for me to understand and enjoy the combat system.

    I have evening classes, a daughter, a busy career, and a thousand other things going. When I play, I want to wring maximum enjoyment out of the hours I set aside for the hobby. A good GM, a fun gaming group, and 4E allow me to do this better than any system I have used so far.

  4. mathew says:

    Looking for players and possibly a do 4th email me at darksage_4@Hotmail. Com

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