Pros: Simpler system; familiar to CRPG/MMO players; production value
Cons: CRPG/MMO feel; hard to suspend disbelief; inflexibility; poor writing
Rating: 3 out of 5
In every office, there’s that guy. He’s outgoing, and he’s got a decent, but not great, sense of humor. You talk about work and what you did on the weekend. He’s also kind of a jerk. He cracks jokes that make you cringe rather than laugh, wondering how anyone could say that, even in jest. When you talk hobbies, you realize you really have nothing in common beyond the building you work in. You don’t hate him, but you don’t like him either. You have your place in the world. He has his. You’re both better off with how little they overlap. For me, the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is that guy.
Fourth edition does contain improvements over D&D 3.5. Many rules have been simplified. For example, skills are broader. Stealth replaces both Hide and Move Silently. Perception replaces both Spot and Listen. Thievery replaces Open Locks, Disable Device, Sleight of Hand, and the use of Search to detect devices. It used to take a fistful of dice to get a rogue down a hallway. 4th edition improves the situation notably. 4th edition also adds the concept of a passive skill check, which allows many actions that used to be opposed roles to be resolved with a single roll. Grappling, though a combat a action rather than a skill, similarly replaces the contested rolls of 3.5 with single rolls against a difficulty determined by the target’s attributes and skills.
Previous editions of D&D used saving throws to determine a target’s ability to resist the effects of magic, breath weapons, poisons, and the like. Fourth edition replaces saving throws with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defense statistics that function like Armor Class (AC). When a spell is cast against a creature, the caster makes an attack roll against the target’s appropriate defense score (fortitude, reflex, or will depending on the spell). This change simplifies the rules, making spells operate similarly to mundane missile and melee combat.
The authors removed or simplified many one of a kind mechanics unique to a single class or situation. For example, they removed cleric domain abilities and almost entirely eliminated memorization of spells. Wizards still have a memorization mechanic, but it’s smaller in scope than in previous editions. Barbarians, bards, druids, monks, and sorcerers are gone altogether from 4th edition, replaced with the addition of the warlord and warlock classes.
Much of the randomness has been removed from player character (PC) creation and advancement. Rolling up attributes with d6s is now a variant rule. The preferred method for character creation is to take the standard array of attributes or purchase attributes using a point system. The new rules ensure that characters start off on the same footing. Similarly, characters gain a fixed number of hit points per level based on their class, rather than rolling.
There are simplifications for the dungeon master (DM) as well. For example, DMs create an encounter by determining a budget of experience points for the encounter, then spending that budget on monsters, traps, and other encounter features.
The trouble began at page 15 of the Player’s Handbook (PHB). Each character has a basic role in combat: controller, defender, leader, or striker. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual (MM) present a similar system for monsters, though their roles are named artillery, brute, controller, lurker, skirmisher, and soldier. My first was that it’s World of Warcraft (WoW) meets D&D: “LF1M Kobold Hall. Need Defender then GTG!” Little did I know…
D&D 3.5 has racial characters, class abilities, spells, and feats for almost anything a heroic character could want to do. Many of these mechanics introduced their own special case rules, complicating the system as a whole. The 4th edition authors rewrote almost all of these as Powers, also called Prayers, Exploits, and Spells, depending on the character class. Characters don’t get many powers: 4 at 1st level up to 17 at 30th level, plus a few extra for race, class, and paragon path powers. Feats remain, but there’s now a sharper division between feats and powers: powers describe what a character can do, whereas feats modify how a thing is done.
Because there are fewer powers, with less variety, and simpler mechanics to resolve them, the game mechanics for powers does streamline the game, a trend which I praised in the section above. During playtesting, we had trouble with players keeping track of all their powers, but we’ve already found some recommendations for handling this, such as writing up powers for character on index cards.
Again, though, the system makes me think of computer RPGs and massively multiplayer online games (CRPGs and MMOs). Character abilities in 4th edition are similar in number and type to popular MMOs. Many powers can be used once per encounter or once per day, similar to abilities in MMOs that have a cool down timer. This has some advantages, such as flattening the learning curve for gamers coming to tabletop RPGs from video games. The mechanics used in video games are far from arbitrary. That industry has spent a fortune — some in deliberate research, some in learning from costly mistakes — figuring out what makes games fun and playable to gamers. Doubtless, there are lessons applicable to tabletop RPGs.
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks. 4th edition strips away much of the support for variety and creative play. The spell selection in 3.5, even with only the PHB, gave spell casters a wide array of options. Watching inventive uses of spells, equipment, and human (or demi-human) cleverness was one of the joys of the game. I’ve seen grease used to rig tournament competitions with lucrative side betting; illusions used to flatter vain nobles; magics used to secure shelter, food, water, and profit in dangerous environments; and oracles used to look deep into the past and future.
4th edition powers focus on combat and healing. There are exceptions, such as the priest prayer to create a cloud chariot, but even for wizards, who fare better than most classes, most powers are combat spells. The PHB describes the Divine Oracle paragon path (think prestige class, more on this later) thus, “You become the voice of your god, full of prophecy and omens. When you use your prophetic powers, your eyes glow with the silvery depths of the Astral sea.” What are their path powers? They can’t be surprised, gain additional combat actions, can re-roll dice, and rewind time to choose alternate actions. Where is the power that haunts me with visions of that most noble institution, my church, succumbing to corruption and crumbling? Where is the mixed blessing, as much curse as power, that my idle musings or cynical jokes sometimes take on the power of prophecy? Where’s the power that invokes my deity to guide my hand as I free write, giving me a Nostradamus-like quatrain that will aid me in my quest if only I can decipher its meaning? Where’s the second sight that could forewarn me before I bought a game with such a pathetic take on the role of divine oracles in a fantasy setting?
I speculate that 4th edition was deliberately designed so that every mechanic could be refereed by a computer with no intelligent human interpretation. Spells, abilities, magic items, and other elements of the game that required human adjudication have been replaced by stripped down, usually combat-oriented, game mechanics that can be mechanistically resolved. Some few remain, relegated to the small chapter on Rituals at the end of the PHB. (More on that later.)
Behold the wonder, for here we have the Babbage machine of tabletop roleplaying! A DM must decide what prophetic vision an oracle receives, but a lobotomized COBOL programmer can write software that gives a +5 attack bonus because a character sees the future. Perhaps the authors did this to facilitate the D&D Insider service’s electronic tabletop environment for playing D&D. Perhaps they are paving the way for CRPGs or MMOs based on D&D. I really don’t care why. The single, most important advantage tabletop RPGs have over CRPGs and MMOs is the infinite possibility. I can attempt anything I can describe to the DM. The variety of spells, skills, abilities, and magic items in D&D 3.5 supported that flexibility and freedom. In 4th edition, almost every game mechanic is a combat mechanic: bonuses and penalties, damage dealt, healing, and/or movement. Why would I play a tabletop RPG with heroic abilities defined as narrowly as a video game? It misses out on the strength of the medium.
Another problem stems from the same cause. Some of the powers are far fetched. Yes, I actually brought myself to complain about the realism of a game with fireballs, holy swords, and dragons. But the problem isn’t realism so much as consistency and expectation. In a video game, I’m used to dealing with abstract concepts. The fact that my warrior in WoW can taunt a slime that doesn’t have intelligent reasoning skills is okay, because it’s consistent with what I expect from the fantasy MMO genre.
The genre conventions are not the same in tabletop fantasy RPGs — at least certainly not for D&D, which has always followed a model closer to a Tolkein or Feist book. Previously, fighters were outstanding with armor and swords, but they were not inherently magical. In 4th edition, fighters have abilities like, “Come and Get It,” which pull foes toward them. It seems to be based on a goading or taunting ability, but there’s no requirement that the fighter share a language with the target or be capable of conveying the taunt without a shared language. There’s not even a requirement that the target be intelligent or of the right temperament to get angry and act based on that anger. Sword and sorcery are fantastic in nature, but beneath the magic there’s a grounding in human nature, physics, and common sense without which the game world seems arbitrary and unpredictable. So the trope that works in MMOs seems out of place and unrealistic in a tabletop RPG.
As another examples, 17th level warlords have access to a power called, “Own the Battlefield.” The description is, “Like a puppet master, you position your enemies exactly how you want them,” and the effect is to slide every enemy nearby a certain number of squares on the battlemap as the warlord sees fit. I couldn’t help laughing out loud when I read it, trying to imagine how I’d describe it to a group of players. “Okay, you use ‘Own the Battlefield,’ huh? Uhh… ok… well… alright, I know it’s supposed to be based on your mastery of the field of combat and tactics, but there’s absolutely *no way* those spellcasters are foolish enough to just impale themselves on your melee line like that. I guess holes open up in the ceiling and strings come down, attaching themselves to your foes on the battlefield. They fight at the strings to no avail and are dragged where your Warlord capriciously points. Once your adversaries are repositioned, the strings retract back into the stone ceiling and are gone.” Sorry, but I just can’t make this ability make sense. I understand the idea is to give Warlords the ability to shape a battlespace using their leadership skills and tactical knowledge, but the way it was mapped into a rule just breaks my suspension of disbelief.
Some powers could have unbalancing effects if used by creative players. The DMG explicitly notes that powers triggered by successfully striking or killing a target cannot be triggered unless the target is a reasonable challenge. Carrying around a sack of rats to brain when a power is needed does not suffice. Many powers have their own “sack of rats” exploits. A paladin might simplify crossing a gorge or river by pulling the weakest climber or swimmer across using Angelic Rescue or Sublime Transposition, abilities that teleport an ally closer to the paladin. I don’t object to the need for common sense in resolving game mechanics. I do object to mechanics that don’t seem well considered outside a narrow, expected application, especially if the resolution is to add arbitrary rules like, “No clubbing rats to get healing surges,” that have no corresponding in game rationale.
To be fair, 4th edition preserves some of the interesting non-combat abilities I’ve been mourning. The Rituals chapter includes them. Rituals are spells with lengthy casting times and expensive components, ensuring they are used outside of combat and require an investment of resources. There are rituals for divination, conjuration, warding, and more. However, the rituals section is about twenty pages, stuffed into the back of the book. The chapter feels like a resting place for afterthoughts that couldn’t fit into other parts of the game system.
Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies
In D&D 4th edition, characters advance from level 1 to level 30. During the first ten levels, they are heroes. At tenth level, they choose a paragon path, a specialization within their class that grants them additional abilities based on a narrower focus. Paragon paths replace the prestige classes of D&D 3.5 and are built into the class progression, so every character takes one. At level 20, characters are eligible to take an epic destiny.
Prestige classes in 3.5 served two purposes. One, they gave players a way of distinguishing their characters by giving them a specific focus area. Secondarily – and alas all too rarely used – they gave DMs a way of creating custom classes anchored to their worlds. For example, the Order of the Broken Key is a specific knightly order in my world. The prestige class allows me to give them abilities that make sense as an outgrowth of their mission and calling in life. Paragon paths satisfy the need for characters to add a narrower specialization to their character’s abilities, but they are not advocated as a way to interweave the mechanics of the class and the institutions of the DM’s game world.
Epic destinies start players thinking about the mark they want to leave on the world. As their characters become powerful enough that they will likely retire from active play, players deliberately plan a story arc with the DM that will create a lasting legacy in the world. Examples in the PHB include apotheosis and the founding of a magic academy. Characters develop abilities between levels 20 and 30 arising out of their epic destiny. We didn’t get a chance to playtest this, but it sounds like a useful tool for players and DMs to build a lasting and memorable story. Unfortunately, like other powers, almost all the destiny features boil down to simple bonuses to stats and rolls, chances to reroll bad results, and the like.
Unlike previous editions of D&D, the magic item list has moved from the DMG to the PHB. The authors suggest that one should openly tell the players what their magic items are, or at least what bonus to attack roll and damage the weapon grants, if not the special effects it has. I understand their reasoning: it gets tiresome for the DM to remember to add various bonuses for items not yet identified by the players. Unfortunately, in the context of the rest of the rules, it feels a bit too much like having a pop up window showing the precise specifications of an item found in an MMO.
Combat and Other Challenges
There are some small tweaks to combat. For example, 4th edition introduces minor actions, a new type of action. Characters get one standard, one move, and one minor action. As described above, combat is, if anything, improved by some of the simplified rules, such as replacing saving throws with attack rolls and the non-resisted rolls for grappling.
The system for out of combat challenges is not as well done. These tasks are resolved in a Skill Challenge. In preparing the challenge, the DM decides how many successful skill checks are necessary to beat the challenge. The DM also decides how many failed skill checks constitute failure of the challenge as a whole. During the game, the players try to accumulate enough successful skill checks without failing enough checks to fail the challenge as a whole. Checks are made using a variety of skills.
Many of the examples feature conversations with NPCs. In most of the games I’ve played, it’s not so easy to predict the path of a conversation. Players are unpredictable in what they’ll do or say, so it’s difficult to pre-determine what skills might be applicable or used by the players. Moreover, I don’t see the need for this mechanic. I never needed an arbitrary challenge structure in 3.5; interrogations, negotiations, and researches were always driven by roleplaying. The mechanics of skill checks were useful tools to support the narrative, but the story unfolded in reaction to the players. There was no arbitrarily set number of successful or failed skill checks.
One way to run a skill challenge would be to keep the framework of mechanics hidden under the hood where it belongs. Unfortunately, this is contrary to the rules suggested in the DMG. The DMG recommends a transparent explanation of the nature of the challenge. In fact, the DM is supposed to tell the players what they should consider using during the challenge: “You can’t start a skill challenge until the PCs know their role in it, and that means giving them a couple of skills to start with,” with an example of play where the DM tells the players, “Your magical disguises, the Bluff skill, and knowledge of the academic aspects of magic — Arcana, in other words — will be key in this challenge.”
When my players come up with a plan to sneak into the wizard’s college, why can’t I just ask them how they plan to do it? Why should I have to tell them what they’re going to do and the skills they’re going to use to do it? What if their plan is to light a classroom building on fire after hours to distract students and pull them from the dormitory, then sneak in? Or to forge documentation from the local lord of the lands granting them unfettered access to the site? Will those require knowledge of the academic aspects of magic, too? In fact, this very section of rules stresses the need to reward clever ideas by players even if they deviate from the script for the challenge. Given that they likely often will, why bother with the challenge mechanic?
Nuts and Bolts: Quality of Instruction, Artwork, and Writing
The DM’s guide contains a great deal of instruction for new DMs. The authors devoted a lot of space to describing what players are looking for in an adventure and how to construct one. Veteran players will not find this material new or interesting. However, the space is well spent for new roleplayers getting started with D&D.
The MM includes all the usual suspects: kobolds, evil dragons (metallic dragons are deferred to another book), medusas, manticores, giants, and so on. The entries are clear, easy to read, and easy to use during combat. During the playtest, I didn’t find myself stumbling over what abilities a monster had available. It was easy to pick up an entry and run it in a fight. Some of the artwork in the MM is truly outstanding.
Throughout the D&D 4th edition core books, however, the quality of writing is below what I would’ve expected. Some descriptions of powers or other abilities aren’t clear. Some mechanical descriptions of the powers do not match the flavor text given in italics at the beginning of the entry. And in some places, it’s just silly. The Fantastic Flourish exploit is described as, “With perfect timing, you flick one enemy’s blood into the eyes of another.” Anyone who’s trying to play fancy tricks with blood spatter patterns isn’t going to live long enough to level up to having that power. Besides, does that mean the power doesn’t work on creatures without eyes? There was no such note of a limitation.
In some cases, the writing is just lazy and indicative of bad editing. On page 87 of the player’s handbook, the flavor text quote ascribed to the Kensei is, “My weapon and I are as one.” On page 88, the first line of the description of the Swordmaster is, “You and your blade are as one.”
The writing was somewhat disappointing in other areas as well. Much of the prose was florid. At the beginning of each class description, I wished the author would stop trying to sell me on the idea of playing that class – or even playing the game in general – and get on with presenting the information. Stop telling me how much bold, daring, and wondrous adventure I’m going to have and get on with it so I can go have my adventure already. The PHB is the worst of the three books in this respect; the quality did pick up in both the DMG and MM.
Overall, I’m disappointed in this edition of D&D. I tried to like it, but I can’t. I tried to hate it, too, but I can’t do that either. I’m sure this has come across in the review. I praise the system for being simplified and streamlined compared to 3.5, but then I condemn it for stripping out all the abilities that require intelligent refereeing and lead to interesting variety in play. I complain about the lack of flexibility, but then also complain about the arbitrary rules necessary to stop abuse of the powers as written. I say it’s a good thing to have a game system that’s accessible to video gamers and learns from that genre, but to me the biggest systemic flaw in the system is that it uses too many conventions of video gaming and loses the essence of tabletop roleplaying.
I suppose one explanation is that I’m a picky curmudgeon who wants mutually exclusive things in a game system and couldn’t possibly be made happy. In truth, I’m struggling with a game system that has a lot of good ideas in it, but many of which were imperfectly (or in some cases poorly) executed. For now, my campaign is going to stay based in 3.5. I think I could make a good game out of 4th edition, but it would take more effort in house rules than I’m willing to put in just yet. Maybe I’ll take a second look if/when a revision 4.5 is released.
Save vs. Pun