I returned to D&D almost a year ago after a very long hiatus. Never having looked at 4th edition, I decided to approach it with enthusiasm and attempt to embrace it. I visited my not-so-local gaming store, talked to the owner, watched part of a game, bought the core books, and began pouring over the rules.
As part of my re-entry into the game, I decided to start a blog in order to chronicle my journey. This being my one hundredth post, I thought it would be appropriate to finally write an article about my thoughts on 4th edition.
In short, 4th edition is not Dungeons and Dragons. Wizards of the Coast has made some brilliant marketing decisions that have taken a highly niche game and made it far more accessible to the general market. However, in the process a great deal has been lost. On its own, it is an interesting game and obviously has quite a following, but Gary must be turning over in his grave knowing that new players think that this is what Dungeons and Dragons is.
But there are endless posts out there describing what people think is lacking in 4e. Instead, let me describe what I like about 4e.
What I Like About 4th Edition
Like most older DMs, my game takes pieces of each edition, plus influences from other games, books, and my own imagination. There are a number of aspects of 4e that I like very much and have incorporated into my own rule set.
I’ve never been very excited about skills in earlier versions. I thought they were clunky, overly complicated, and I just didn’t see the appeal so I never gave them a lot of thought. We used our own version of skills but they were more of a type of save, such as using a character’s swimming skill or riding skill to avoid an accident. In 3e, skills were so bloated that I was turned off to the whole idea and never considered developing our skill system more fully.
But 4e came out with a much more streamlined approach to skills. Maybe it was because I was trying to be more receptive to 4e as a whole than I was to 3e when it came out, but this new presentation of skills clicked with me. Naturally, I made a number of modifications and altered the basic mechanic somewhat, but it was 4e that got me interested enough to go that far.
Every version of D&D has had conditions of one sort or another. 3E went a bit overboard in developing endless conditions for every situation. I like that 4e reined them in a bit and reduced the number of conditions to a more manageable number.
What I was really excited about though was the move away from conditions with a predetermined duration to conditions that last until you successfully save against it. Again, not exactly a new idea but it is new on the scale in which it was presented. I’ve modified the saves involved but the overall concept works better for me that tracking durations.
4e made some fairly minor changes to damage types. But I must say that I prefer thunder and lightning to sonic and electricity. The latter may actually be a more accurate description of the damage type, but the former has a lot more flair.
What sparked the following idea in me actually had nothing to do with 4e, but it occurred to me to make a clean distinction between the damage types available to wizards and the damage types available to clerics. All my clerical spells now do either radiant or necrotic damage. Wizards spells no longer have access to either of these damage types. That may sound a bit limiting but due to the source of divine power, it makes sense to me.
When you talk about the differences in 4e, almost everyone immediately mentions powers. As presented, I think they are an awful idea. But the general concept of having something to do beyond a basic attack makes combat more interesting and gives players more of a feeling of control, being able to use their powers to strategic effect.
I completely threw out all the powers listed in 4e and came up with my own. Martial powers (fighters) offer additional str-related combat moves, finesse powers (rogues) offer additional dex-related combat moves, divine and arcane powers (clerics and wizards respectively) offer powers that enhance their spells. I completely got rid of daily and at-will powers. Some powers are restricted to once per encounter but most are rechargeable powers.
I created power cards for all my new powers. On the back, it states whether the power is an encounter power or a recharge power (in which case there is a picture of the die results needed to recharge). When a power is used, you turn it over. At the beginning of your turn, you roll for each overturned recharge power to see if it has become ready. So far, this system has worked very well and adds a little excitement while at the same time reducing the reliance on powers that has dominated 4e.
D&D has always had spells that take longer to cast than other spells. They were just never called rituals. Some players have voiced annoyance that spells don’t have a standard casting time. But those longer casting times serve to limit spells that would be too powerful otherwise. Also, our group has never enjoyed using material components but some spells become overpowered if not limited by material components. 4e’s presentation of rituals tied these issues together nicely. We now have a distinction between spells and rituals. Spells always take one standard action to cast (with limited exceptions such as feather fall) and never require material components. Rituals always require more time to cast and always require material components.
I realize that this is entirely semantics, but by clearly defining differences like that, it seems to make more sense.
I’m not fond of defining characters by roles. I prefer to view characters as individuals with varied abilities not just the set of abilities dictated by their role. However, I love the idea of monsters having roles. But not for the reasons you are probably thinking.
I maintain a spreadsheet of all my monsters and calculate many of the stats based on other stats. By grouping monsters into roles, I am able to create sets of stats that lean one way or another based on the creature’s role. Again, I modified the roles presented but the concept is maintained.
Solos, Elites, and Minions
The idea of high level, one hit point monsters is ridiculous. But the idea of minions is interesting. And it works well with the idea of solos and elites. My solos and elites have 5x and 2x hit points respectively, while minions have 25% hit points. I’ve used more or less powerful versions of monsters before for the same purpose but never formalized the idea. I think this is one of the best ideas I got from 4e.
Probably the biggest complaint I have about 4e revolves around how healing surges and action points dictate how many encounters a party has during the day and when it’s time to sleep. But the idea of an action point is pretty interesting to me.
Naturally, I employ them slightly differently. Action points aren’t a reward for anything, All characters have one action point per encounter automatically. Monsters do not, except for elites that have one and solos that have two. NPCs are treated as characters and therefore have one as well. Action points can’t be saved up and otherwise work as normal. This gives characters one more method of adding some strategy to a fight and adds to the feeling of being in control. It does make characters somewhat more powerful but the method I use to calculate monster hit points makes monsters more powerful so this helps balance it out.
Iconic Spell Names
Although 4e has gotten rid of spells, they still have rituals. I was happy to see that they revived some of the iconic names for spells such as Leomund’s Secret Chest and Tenser’s Floating Disc.
Taking a Fresh Look at Everything
Without a doubt, what I like best about 4th edition is that it made me take a close look at every aspect of the game. As I stated earlier, nearly everything about 4e is different. But different isn’t bad. By looking at a different system, I am forced to look closely at the old system and see which I prefer. In most places, I prefer what I already had, in some places, I prefer what 4e presented, in many other places, after looking at the new and the old and spending some time thinking about it, I came up with an entirely new system. As a result, I think I have a much more enjoyable rule system. If I hadn’t been for 4e, I never would have taken the time to re-evaluate everything and never would have gotten to where I am now.