Fourth Edition, Another Year On

Over a year ago I posted five things I liked about D&D 4e, and five things I didn’t like. With fourth edition in its second year, how have these impressions held up?

The good

Dungeon Master advice: The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is still as useful as it was in 2008. Particularly important are the guidelines on player motivations and pacing, which I probably haven’t paid enough attention to. Dungeon Master’s Guide II mainly provides new game rules, but has some good DM advice articles including contributions from game mastering expert Robin D. Laws.

Monster archetypes: Several cracks have appeared in the creature archetypes system, particularly that Solo creatures make for long and boring fights. Monster Manual 2 and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 reveal new guidelines which fix these issues. Soldier type creatures are still very stodgy and Minions still feel a little weird when they go down in one hit.

Faster, more interesting combat: I’m not certain that this held up. Between increased hit point values, increased miniatures use, fewer spells known and more status effects to track, the game in my experience is slower, if anything. This is in online play using a digital gametable setup without voice, so perhaps the real issue is that 4E only works if you have good communication between players. Other players I’ve spoken to report that the game is faster overall.

Rules balance: We’ve yet to see anything truly game-breaking that isn’t quickly errata’d. There are allegations of power creep, though we may see the power balance level out as designers get a better grasp of the game’s power level.

Easy monster creation: This is definitely still the case. First up, the D&D Insider Compendium and Monster Builder has over 3,000 monsters you can repurpose or mine for ideas - there are currently 154 monsters of level 7 alone, all official content. You can scale them up or down by as many as five levels, or apply one of 28 templates (16 DMG, 12 DMG2) or 17 classes (8 DMG, 9 DMG2). There are solid monster creation guidelines for creatures of all types, and a Monster Builder tool to aid the process.

The bad

Ugly races: Tieflings still look stupid with horns coming out of their forehead. Both tieflings and dragonborn still look like monsters in the book art, even when they’re alongside humans and elves. (Perhaps I’m just racist?) There’s a lot of 4E art in general that doesn’t ignite my imagination. Even if it looks good, it’s still just some heroes posing or engaging a monster, without leaving the viewer with questions to imagine wonderful answers.

Cheesy in-character text: “I see the secret patterns of magic, and through the items I carry, I can use that magic to protect you, heal you… or make you explode.” Why would anyone ever say this phrase? Is he at an adventurer job interview? It exists only to summarize the Artificer class in smug first-person. It doesn’t invoke a scene or fire the imagination. There’s hope, though, as the monk’s introductory quote sounds like something he might genuinely say to a villain or an ally: “You fight well, but without discipline and focus, you will fall.”

Too abstract mechanics: This is still the case, but as 4E blog At Will writes, nothing stops you inferring your own meaning into the game mechanics. When the rogue’s Cloud of Steel power lets him shoot a crossbow at ten opponents in a round, perhaps it’s a spell he’s picked up. A healing surge might literally relate to some in-character attribute of personal stamina: for further discussion, see the June article Hit Points and You.

Skill challenges: I still don’t get skill challenges. It feels somewhat arbitrary that you succeed based on the number of times you make a successful attempt, rather than what it is your character succeeds at accomplishing. Perhaps it’s possible to create a good skill challenge that handles both. Errata has improved the skill challenge rules and DMG2 offers further advice for creating good skill challenges.

Pushing other WotC products: This still occurs, but it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s not very prevalent even so.

Comments (10)

Nick (December 21st, 2009)

Aside from supporting the game as it grows, I see no reason to switch from 3.5 yet. In my experience it provides a better platform for roleplaying and improvisation, while still creating a cohesive and structured game. I know this isnt an article to stoke the flames of edition wars, but that’s my two cents…

Wimwick (December 21st, 2009)

I’m not sure combat is any faster or slower. It seems slower, but I think that is due to all the conditions that need to be tracked. One thing I’m interested in experiementing with is less overall monster of higher level, supported by a few extra minions. The other option is more monsters that are weaker, but they arrive in waves.

Skill Challenges are an interesting area. I love the concept but have found they are hit or miss in execution. I think they work best when the DM is able to introduce them as part of the story. PCs are then able to commence with skill checks in a very organic way that doesn’t feel forced.

Overall a great list, and I’m 100% behind you on the artwork. It doesn’t inspire my imagination they way previous did. It’s great artwork, but something is missing.

Ray Wenderlich (December 22nd, 2009)

My favorite things about 4E are the tremendous balance (as you’ve mentioned) and how each class has a variety of interesting abilities to choose between during an encounter.

My least favorite thing is that 4E seems to stress combat more than role playing.

Demothenes XXI (December 22nd, 2009)

I’ve been running the game for over a year now and the combat is still pretty damn slow, IMHO. We’ve tried all of the tips and tricks on the WotC forums and other stuff and it’s not working. The problem is that they took a game that worked for all kinds of gamers and changed it into something that is only fun for tactical gamers. My wife and most of my other game group are “storyteller gamers,” and they do not fit into the “tactical” mold. I have two other people in my group who regularly play “BattleTech” and “Warhammer Fantasy/40K;” they do great at this game and get all of the strategic and tactical nuances that are required.

As for the monster builder and stuff, I’m still a bit insulted that these things are only available to people who subscribe to their web-service. If I bought the books (at $30.00+ a pop), then why isn’t that enough for them to be able to use the service. I am fine with their charging subscription fees for the .pdf copies of the “Dragon” and “Dungeon” magazines. That’s fine and reasonable. I had even considered buying subscriptions to them. But I decided not to do so when I found that they were charging for access to the “game assistance apps.” I would be happy if they asked that I had to provide proof of purchase (i.e. receipt) for a given amount of product and then I’d be given a subscription. That would be quite fair. But for them to charge extra for tools meant to make the game easier for their customers is pretty lowbrow. Nickel and diming your customers is not good business.

I still buy the books because I suspect that I will be either running or playing this in the future, but I am very close to ceasing my current campaign because my players are getting burned out on the slow combat.

This is just what I am going through and I wanted to share it because I thought that this post was very well written and I wanted to share my experience with the blog poster.

wickedmurph (December 22nd, 2009)

I’ve had no problem with the pace of combats, but that’s because I modify combats extensively. I use Maptools to run my game, so I can make very big maps. That lets me build large areas, with multiple groups of enemies, patrols and things, and let the characters move through it in “real time”, combining skill challenge elements, combat in waves, ambushes and other factors into very long mega-encounters.

Most “encounters” run 2 or three hours, but they tend to be the equivalent of 4 or 5 standard encounters. I use a metric crap-ton of minions, and almost no soldiers and no solo monsters. Combat is fast, vicious and works really well.

Demothenes - you’re doing it backwards. I bought the first 3 books (should only have bought the first 2 in retrospect), and with my DDi subscription I haven’t had to buy another - everything I need is in character builder, compendium and monster builder - what do I need the books for?

DirtyCajun (December 28th, 2009)

So far I have played many, and run a few, games of LFR. If the group has played together for a while the game runs very smoothly and combat doesn’t typically lag. On the other hand there are some LFR modules out there with one or two pushover encounters and then an encounter designed to take forever. It’s when you start incorporating a hard combat with hard to maneuver terrain that I really have a problem with the combats. A combat that would have run in an hour without terrain gimmicks can easily turn into a 2.5 hour slog that everyone is drained after.

Brandon Buchanan (January 3rd, 2010)

Jonathan, you said under “The Good: Combat” that you used a digital tabletop to run your game. I thought D&D insider scrapped that.

I live in WI and my friends who I want to game with live in TX, and I would LOVE to have an online tabletop to use. Does this exist anywhere?

Jonathan Drain (January 3rd, 2010)

Brandon: I use a third party app called Gametable, not to be confused with WotC’s own delayed/cancelled online tabletop. You can read an article about Gametable I wrote in 2008.

Brandon Buchanan (January 4th, 2010)

Jonathan: Thank you very much for your response. I think I’ll probably go with Fantasy Grounds since I’m not concerned with the one-time license cost.

You’ve just reunited a former gamer back with his friends and with D&D.

Brandan Landgraff (January 4th, 2010)

Ahh the magic of :D

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