Wednesday, August 25, 2010

D&D 4th Edition - Updated Review

Back on March 11 I posted my initial thoughts on 4th ed. D&D and concluded by saying: "I should clarify that it is early days of playing 4E and that I may yet become more attached to this sleek, plastic thing that’s eaten my old mongrel."

So, I’ve been playing D&D 4th Edition for almost 9 months now, which works out to around 35 or so sessions, or around 140 hours! In that time I’ve had three characters die, and advanced a character from 1st through to 7th level. I have to say it has been fun. Below are some of my thoughts on the game, specifically where it differs from previous editions. I’m not a big fan of D&D as a system, but it does deliver some sustainable and consistent fun.

Classes: I’ve come to accept the new class structures, although it does seem that the more recent PhB’s and option books go out of their way to try and blur the original distinctions between them, harking back to the inevitable power creep of the multitude of 3.5 books. I’ve never liked the idea that a party character composition should be dictated by the rules, but in this 4th ed. seems little different to previous editions, with a balanced party achieving better results.

Combat: Still takes ages. Much like 3.5 there are a lot of rules to check, double check and re-check every turn as almost every power has a unique twist. I accept that this is not going to be the same for all groups, but I think that it is somewhat inevitable in a group of people who are tired after a day at work, but still determined to derive the full benefit for their characters. On the plus side, this checking is usually fairly straightforward as the details are (hopefully) printed on the cards, and most people only have one attack to make. On the downside, feats don’t print in that format in the electronic system and are increasingly important elements for characters, making for some ugly overlapping rules which must be checked and clarified. While some basic moves like attacks of opportunity, bull-rushes and grapples have been tidied up, they remain fairly arduous and cumbersome. On the plus side, healing, surges and bloodied rules are neat. On the downside the multitude of new conditions can be confusing, necessitating yet more rules checking each turn, not to mention the ongoing nature of saving throws and contingent damage etc. Also resting time, and the technical distinction between short and longer rests seems incredibly regimented and unnatural. On the up-side I believe it is much easier for GM’s to prep combat encounters, which should be good for all concerned, and I do like the way that the attack powers all spur descriptiveness from the players.

Skill Challenges: In my opinion these are still not very intuitive, and the narrowed range of skills is frequently confusing. I’ve never liked players trying to use rules as a crutch to describe their characters actions, but as the skill-challenge mechanic seems to be GM driven, I’m not sure how you could set one up as a player unless you’re willing to do this. Simply put, I think to work properly and in the way intended, skill challenges should be prepped by the GM almost like a combat encounter, which is probably a fairly unrealistic expectation, given the traditional approach to D&D games of a lot of groups.

Magic Items: The change to balance these and bring them into the system makes me realize just how much I used to depend on my equipment to get me out of tough spots; particularly higher level scrolls. Now encounters lack that element, I know the basic range of damage my character can deal, and simply must try and optimize things to ensure that it is delivered to the right place at the right time. It seems a lot more mechanical and requires a lot less creative thinking in my opinion.

Down-Time: Following on from this is my major disappointment with the difference between prior editions and 4th Edition. I really liked some of the logistical problems we used to face. How to cross a hostile river, how to enter a sealed barrow or how to disguise and pilot a ship between ports, braving storms, monsters and pirates. The old range of spells and items really gave us some neat options to do some creative and interesting things. From the humble rope trick through to minute mansions and pocket dimensions, there was a lot of variety. Now I agree that despite all these great tricks, you’d usually end up in a fight, and given the current system is built for this eventuality, perhaps it just cuts to the chase. But it really does feel like the game is missing a great and important element.

So, in summary, I do like 4th ed. particularly the way that it makes the player experience both slicker and more flavourful and makes GM prep easier. The game seems to work best for players using the character creator, but there are several elements that are poorly resolved in the output, making things unnecessarily complicated. I miss the grand old magic options of previous editions, even though I accept it probably made things unbalanced. Yes, some classes were disproportionately better under those rules at different levels, but as I remember it, few high-level characters that didn’t have a splash of at least one other class or prestige options/kit under their belts. Obviously WotC are blurring the clear lines of their system by releasing even more supplements, with more options and new rules, but that’s been a hallmark of D&D for as long as I’ve played it…


  1. What, no comment from Luke yet? ;)

    In general I have liked how the game has played - I feel like combats are quicker and easier to manage than in 3.5. But we're still only 3rd level, so we haven't started to get into the realm of the cooler stuff Magic Users used to be able to do.

  2. A lot of 4th Ed advocates say that the game only really begins to come into it's own at Paragon tier. Low level characters do have a very limited selection of actions for a given situation, but as you gain more abilities and magic items, new options open up. You never get back to the 'save or die' levels of power that previous editions had, but in my opinion that's a good thing.

    As for the game between the fights, that's really up to the GM. There's plenty of flexibility to ad lib outside of combat, and mechanics like healing surges allow you to attach in-combat consequences to out-of-combat activity.

    To be honest though, it's definitely a system designed for fighting, and I think it does that extremely well.

  3. I'm sure somewhere there's steam coming out of Luke's ears, but he's obviously taking a restrained approach :)
    Seriously though, I'm not trying to be a hater, just posting my thoughts and experiences with all the bias and caveats that entails.

    On Paragon tier - I'll take your word for it, and hope to find out. I note that in 3.5 I spent most of my time playing at levels less than 10 because the game usually disintegrated around that point so I won't really have much basis for comparison.

    On the game betwen fights; I'm not convinced. Taking the ruined city as an example, at similar levels in 3.5 the most basic approach we'd have taken would have involved figuring out how far we could fly (invisibly), deployed some magical mounts, possibly polymorphed the rogue for scouting, laid down some divinations for further information, and ensured that we laid out all manner of magical traps. It could just be our current wizard isn't using these powers, but I don't get the impression that a lot of that stuff is on the table...

  4. I am here :) I have been a little busy.

    FWIW your review sounds fair and honest to me, so I have little quibble with it.

    Some comments:

    1. On combat, I have found the following tools to be very helpful in play:

    - condition cards: There are a number online and I have a deck or two from D&D encounters. When someone suffers from a condition, you can place it next to the battle map so players can pick it up and reference it.
    - power cards: Using the Character Builder is your friend as you note.

    Between the two tools above, I don't think I ever refer to a rulebook as a DM in play :)

    As an end result, most combats should take between 45 minutes to 1 hour. I understand that this is still too long for many RPGers. If you are running above that, there should be ways to get the time cut down.

    2. On skill challenges, your comments suggest to me that your group still doesn't really grok how they work. That's cool. You are not alone and I know several D&D groups that don't use them for similar reasons.

    3. On magic items, I agree that they are sucky in 4e, though the parcel system is better for a GM IMO. They are getting a big overhaul in Essentials, so lets hope we see some improvements.

    4. On down-time, that's a common complaint. Rituals and skill challenges are meant to cover that spot, but these are often not used, creating this rather weird hole :)

    FWIW this is something being revisited in Essentials with a lot of miscellaneous use spells making their way back into the Power mix like Charm Person and lllusions.

  5. "On the game betwen fights; I'm not convinced. Taking the ruined city as an example, at similar levels in 3.5 the most basic approach we'd have taken would have involved figuring out how far we could fly (invisibly), deployed some magical mounts, possibly polymorphed the rogue for scouting, laid down some divinations for further information, and ensured that we laid out all manner of magical traps. It could just be our current wizard isn't using these powers, but I don't get the impression that a lot of that stuff is on the table..."

    Those powers are still all there, as mentioned above. Rituals cover a lot of it:

    - fly (invisibly): Tenser's Floating Disc and Traveller's Camoflage are 1st level Rituals
    - deployed some magical mounts: Familiar Mount is a 4th level Ritual and Phantom Steed is a 6th level Ritual
    - possibly polymorphed the rogue for scouting: Ghost Walk is a 9th level Ritual
    - laid down some divinations for further information: Seek Rumour is a 2nd level Ritual and Hand of Fate is a 4th level Ritual
    - and ensured that we laid out all manner of magical traps: Snare is a 4th level Ritual and Wyvern Watch is a 6th level Ritual

    Its also important to note that rituals are no longer the responsibility of just the Wizard. Any class can take the feat and use Rituals.

    FWIW the kinds of things Rituals still don't cover are automatic "win" effects, like invisibility. Instead, you get bonuses to the things that normally grant that effect i.e. Stealth.

    Skill Challenges also cover this kind of stuff as well. For example, the skill Arcana can be used for all kinds of miscellanesou magical effects in a Skill Challenge. Some DMs might be worried about this being abused as it is too freeform, but given that the SC system is inherently balanced, the DM shouldn't be worried.

    Also, Power usage interacts with Skill Challenges, granting +5 bonuses with appropriate use.

    So, my guess is that the exploration of the ruined city would have felt just as diverse as ever before if it had been phrased as a Skill Challenge and seen Ritual use.