Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Having played many years of 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons, and 3.5e, it is difficult to be unbiased towards a review of the 4th edition of the rules. This review is so far removed from the release of the game partly because of this potential bias, and partly because of the casual schedule with which my group plays. In discussing my gripes and seeing how others feel, I have tried to ensure that my opinions will be based on the game of 4e more than an unfair comparison to 3e. Even if much of the review is centres around comparisons, I hope I have made them as impartially as possible.

It makes sense to start a review where one would start the game, and character creation is both simplified and complicated. There is one progression tree for all characters, giving a standard template regardless of class choice. But each class has completely and often radically different powers not only for each level but as a choice for each slot in a level, making the template less of a simplification. Rather than a new level giving a standard power to a class, the player has a choice of several powers to put in to that one slot, much like choosing a new spell in the old system. I think the single progression tree is not a simplification to the system as much as a guide to maintain balance, so that each class has the same access to encounter and daily powers. The single tree is useful when choosing a class, as comparisons between classes come down solely to the powers available with no consideration needed as to when they are gained. Gaining a level is as simple as looking at that all-encompassing tree and picking new options as instructed for your level. It is worth noting, though, that despite the revamp to character levelling there is still a 'flat spot' at 6th level where nothing interesting changes.

Choosing powers is also able to be simple and complex simultaneously. In choosing a class and one of the two archetypes, it generally feels like nearly every choice of power has thus already been made. Bonuses are given to one power per choice for each of the two archetypes, and other powers tend to be based around the two archetypes in secondary ways. The choice seems to be picking powers that fit with your archetype, or weaken yourself slightly. So far, so simple. Yet every class has individual powers, and not just one per level. Nearly all of the at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers differ from each other both across classes and within the class. Trying to understand how a class works is no longer as straightforward as reading the overview and a handful of the powers you may end up getting on the way to 20th level, now you need to read two dozen different powers and decide how you will make a quarter of them complement each other in a way you desire or expect. Having to consider how many characters you want to hit, whether it is best to deal damage or apply a status effect, how often you are expecting to attack bloodied creatures or be bloodied yourself, and if you're even going to get hit all effect how the class can play, even without considering how other classes can affect your choices. And you need to make these choices for every class. Having a wealth of different powers seems initially to offer great choice, but it quickly becomes a mire in which you get bogged down. And with each power for each class having a different fanciful rather than descriptive name, learning one class does not help learning any other class, effectively becomining meaningless placeholders. To learn a class, all of the text of the powers needs to be read, which can become a chore of sorting through damage types and status effects. A positive aspect of the system is that at each level a class choice can be 'retrained', allowing less-used powers to be swapped for one more suitable for the style of the character or party.

Paradoxically, although all the powers are different they are necessarily also fairly similar, being based on a standard broad template. You attack with a stat against a defence and do damage with a weapon, implement, or the power itself, and often apply a status effect or forced movement. There are exceptions that do nifty effects, have different ranges and shapes of attacks, and options for hitting multiple targets, but the template generally remains the same. It is perhaps the combination of similarity and perceived complexity, a fairly standard template being used to construct forty different powers that all have sufficient differences to need distinct readings, that makes character creation potentially confusing, particularly when the choice seems false on first glance as your archetype apparently determines the best powers to pick anyway. It is no doubt easier to create lower-level characters, with only a few powers, but in recently trying to create a 16th level character of an unfamiliar class I find myself almost bewildered by the wealth of material available in trying to pick only a handful of powers that work effectively together. Maybe players who enjoyed playing spellcaster characters before, reading pages of spells to pick just the right one, will relish the new power system, but a melee fighter may not want to read five powers and have to decide whether 'weapon damage and status effect one (save ends)' is better than 'twice weapon damage and status effect two (save ends)', or 'weapon damage and status effect three until end of you next turn'. It's reasonable to assume he just wants to hit something, and hard.

Using powers can be equally frustrating. There is no doubt that combat can feel more vital and exciting compared to the previous edition, with powers and bodies flying everywhere, but when every attack is a power with an exotic name then nothing stands out as being different or more powerful. There is no distinction in power names between at-will, encounter, or daily powers, with some at-will powers sounding rather more aggressive than a high-level daily power. When your character builds up to hit with his biggest, most powerful daily power, and no one else really pays it much attention until you roll a hundred damage dice, the naming convention appears badly arbitrary. Whereas a 3rd edition wizard casting fireball or lightning bolt would always grab the party's attention, if only to make sure you aren't in the spell's area of effect, now calling out the name of your power is simply not enough, almost requiring a mention of it being a daily power in order to elicit any excitement from other party members. The 4th edition wizard's 1st level at-will power Cloud of Daggers sounds rather more menacing than the 27th level encounter spell Confusion, despite the latter doing significantly more damage and allowing the wizard to take basic control of the target's next turn. In effect, power names seem entirely superfluous beyond being unique identifiers, and as they are generally free from any descriptive influence, could almost be replaced by 'at-will power #1' and '3rd level encounter power'. It's only a problem because every power is treated the same.

Having all powers use the same template whilst trying to make everything interesting only tends to flatten out the peaks and troughs to become a mass of bland conformity. Using an at-will power seems paradoxically disappointing, considering they are meant to be better than previous edition's standard attack, probably because we are enticed with the more potent encounter and daily powers. Having to use an at-will power seems like your character is being less effective. Part of the problem may be the desire to add descriptive flair to attacks, to draw yourself and others in to the game world. The names and small description of the power can help to add some excitement, but making every power special backfires in this case too. Falling back on at-will powers often enough will quickly reach your limit on describing the attack in a way that sounds fresh, and not many people will feel the same excitement about casting the equivalent of magic missile six rounds in a row. Instead of making up a colourful visualisation of your characters actions, you will end up simply stating the game-mechanic effect of the at-will power so that people know what you are doing. This has the unfortunate side-effect of bleeding in to the encounter and daily powers too, merely stating their effects rather than describing the power you are unleashing. However, with the two problems so stated they seem to solve each other. Relegate at-will powers to simple mechanical effects, making them feel standard and normal, but break out the vivid descriptive attacks for the stronger and lesser-used and -seen daily powers. Doing this will make at-will powers feel like a standard attack your character can do quickly and effortlessly, whilst retaining the power and thrill associated with the stronger attacks.

Beyond powers, there are feats and equipment. I have found both frustrating. Picking feats is like picking powers, in that there seems to be wealth of them available but looking closer you really only have a tiny choice. The restrictions on feats are much greater than before, many needing a certain race or class, let alone those that require specific levels of attributes. Even finding more general feats doesn't guarantee finding one that will help, as not many classes will want a modifier to thunder damage. And once a feat is found, it is a disappointing experience if you have played 3rd Edition, as the benefits are awfully modest. Many feats offer a tiny +1 modifier to attacks or damage, an amount that doesn't seem worth wasting a feat on, particularly as hit points have been significantly increased and class powers like throwing big numbers around to impress everyone. But the change is that feats no longer play as large a role in defining your character. In fact, it seems like feats are only included in 4th Edition so that it seems like there is one less major change in the game, whereas it feels instead that the designers probably wanted to get rid of them entirely. Once it is realised that powers define the character, and powers alone, it is easier to pick the few feats you are eligible for and promptly forget about them.

It would be impossible to marginalise equipment in the same way as feats, because for many players the game has long been about magical weapons and armour, and wondrous items. It is clear that the designers understand this, as the equipment section has been overhauled so that all weapons, armour and items also have powers in the same way classes do, and these powers augment PCs in much the same way. The equipment powers are broken down in to at-will, encounter, and daily powers, as for class powers, and there are separate limits as to how many item daily powers you can use between each 'extended rest', in an effort to balance gaining access to items and becoming too powerful. There are thus a wealth of items available that grant all sorts of amazing abilities, and not just wondrous items. Any armour or weapon can provide a useful effect. It sounds fantastic, particularly with the much easier and excellent method of buying equipment, gaining items based around your level rather than being given a heap of gold, but it is let down by poor planning. The character creation item selection is great, I cannot deny that, but when you are trying to pick armour or a weapon within a four-level range of your character level and decide that the best choice is basic equipment with no power, the system has failed. The plusses on armour do not equate directly to item level, so finding a +3 item doesn't limit your selection unnecessarily, but after narrowing down the armour type and power bonus, there can be surprisingly few choices left, without opting for an item an extra level or two below your minimum choice, simply to get something interesting. Equipment options expand considerably if you buy extra books, or subscribe to the on-line service, but a casual player like myself is not about to buy an extra source book only to get the stats for a piece of armour. Considering the items have different tiers themselves, it is surprising that the obvious solution was overlooked. If the items were tiered for every three or four levels, each item would always be available in some form at any level of character creation. But when they are tiered ten levels apart, problems ensue. Not one member of my group was happy with the equipment choices when creating 16th level characters recently, all of us compromising our item levels to get something interesting, or seriously considering items with no power bonus.

Despite having at-will, encounter and daily powers, in an effort to create powers of different magnitudes that have built-in limited uses to balance the powers automatically, it is clear that the system doesn't quite work. The standard templates are not quite flexible enough, the framework strong but flawed. Some classes have access to encounter powers that can be used more than once per encounter. Some items have, admittedly clever, methods of granting several uses of the item on a daily basis without offering the continued use of an encounter power or restrictions associated with daily powers. And whilst the flexibility of these powers is useful, it shows that trying to cram every class and power in to a standard template has failed. It is a noble goal, to create supremely balanced classes, but when exceptions to rules are being formulated with common frequency there is perhaps more than a hint that bespoke class creation is a better ideal. It could be argued that maybe all that is needed is to separate the three rôles, creating a separate character progression for leaders, defenders, and strikers. But I imagine that once the three rôles are separated there would still be exceptions, and we would be back with individual class progression trees as in previous editions. Clever or forced exceptions in power uses are perhaps a necessary evil for an overall simplified framework.

The mobility of combat is a great change. Although there were opportunities before to have a lot of movement during battle, it tended towards moving together and fighting within a clump, maybe taking the occasional five-foot step to manoeuvre in to a more advantageous position over the course of a few rounds. 4th Edition combat is a maelstrom in comparison. The five-foot step is replaced with 'shifting', where many powers allow shifts as part of an attack and shifts of greater than one square. Forced movement can be used against allies and enemies, moving PCs and NPCs several squares around the map almost every turn. Teleportation is not limited to high-level spellcasters, with many powers giving access to easy movement away or in to combat without provoking attacks, or even whilst immobilised. The whirlwind of action makes combat far more dynamic, even if it has its drawbacks.

I have found it next-to-useless to try to analyse combat outside of my own turn in the initiative order. I have a set of powers to choose my next attack from, and I can generally decide how to best use my action, but because of the dynamic nature of combat my best next move can and is highly likely to be negated by the next PC or NPC action. I can modify my strategy and formulate a new best action to take, but that again will be negated by anyone who acts before me. I find that I cannot reliably determine my next action until it is actually my turn, and no other moves will be made before my own. This has unfortunate side-effects. First, it slows down combat, as I may not reasonably have a course of action ready for my turn, and I need to pause to consider my options. Second, and more importantly, it frustrates trying to follow the action. Watching combat unfurl, I naturally try to see what my allies are doing to see if I can aid them, or what my enemies are doing to see if I can foil them. In short, I analyse the combat to plan a strategic response. But I have just explained that any response is almost certain to be nullified before I can enact it, so I have to become disinterested in the combat or find myself continually frustrated. And being disinterested doesn't help either, as it disengages me from the game more than I desire, as well as making it less likely for me to notice actions I can take outside of my turn. It will take more practice to find a level of attentiveness to combat that doesn't frustrate strategical reasoning whilst actively recognising what I can actually do. Certainly, greater communication and exploitation of class synergies will aid in creating more opportunities to follow combat and have an appropriate action ready, but the instructions will have to be rather vague suggestions or they risk stifling the heroics of other characters.

Moving more in to the techincal side, the choice of words in the PHB can cause problems. In trying to maintain brevity, a 'headline' jargon is adopted for often-used terms, such as 'save ends'. A sentence fragment in itself 'save ends' is meaningless outside of context, but is soon understood to mean 'a successful saving throw ends the effect', which is fine. But a problem occurs when the paucity of language is taken too far. Some powers have multiple effects, giving a sentence such as 'effect one, effect two (save ends both)'. Given the common understanding of 'save ends' it seems reasonable to read that a successful saving throw is needed to recover from both effects, but ambiguity abounds. When compared to other powers that have text such as 'effect one (save ends), effect two (save ends)', the first example becomes clearer, but it would be clearer still if the two different types didn't need to be contrasted against each other to discern the meaning of the one. I believe any confusion could have been avoided with a simple addition, 'one save ends both'. This is a simple example, one that perhaps shows the designers ended up too close to the game to spot potential ambiguities.

More problems crop up with cross-references. In reading one section, although the section may appear closed and complete it is potentially riddled with complexity that can only be found by cross-referencing with other sections. Trying to determine whether targets of a blast get cover is not solved by the section on blast, or the reference in the description of blasts to line-of-effect, but only definitively by reading the section on cover. A similar problem is encountered in reading the status effects, where one status effect may invoke another, but it is not made clear. The rules seem to be striving towards creating a solid framework of fundamental abilities and effects that can then be used as a reference for any current and future material, rather than having to define individual effects and struggle to balance them and resolve ambiguities. This is a worthy goal and one that could prove powerful, but it is undermined slightly by the lack of emphasis on reserved words. In a framework system such as this one there are certain words that have specific meanings, and the whole framework relies on those meanings being immutable and thus the words not being used external to those meanings. But without having a list of those reserved words it can be difficult both to recognise them and to apply them, particularly when trying to discuss or resolve rules decisions. What would have been helpful is the reserved words being consistently printed in bold, or a certain colour, to indicate their status in the rulebook. Thus when looking up the status condition 'restrained' you would then obviously know it is necessary also to apply second condition 'immobilised' rather than try to adpot a common sense meaning of being immobilised.

Without reserved words being highlighted, it can be difficult to gauge how a word should be read. The condition 'immobilised' is a good example. In standard language, to be immobilised is not to be able to move. But in 4th Edition you are simply restricted to your square. You can still attack and perform actions, and can be subject to forced movement, as long as you don't move from your square on your own volition. But without knowing that 'immobilised' is actually a technical term in 4th Edition our GM was struggling to work out if a prone and immobilised character could stand up on his turn, as it would require moving. One of our party read the status condition text and realised that an 'immobilised' character could do star jumps if he wanted, which doesn't seem sensible. Knowing that 'immobilised', and any other reserved word, is being used in a certain way would help clarification immeasurably, and I would suggest that forcing reserved words to be printed obviously differently would also help prevent any stray uses of common uses of the terms making their way in to the rulebooks.

Even so, the strong idea of the framework of effects is not quite complete yet. 'Dominate' applied the 'dazed' effect, then letting the dominating character decide the action of the dominated. But players spotted that free actions were still available to dazed characters, allowing them to call out that they were dominated or perform actions of their own choice, which was against the intent of the dominate effect and so was changed. It's a small change, but indicative that perhaps specific descriptions of certain effects are necessary and preferred. It also shows the ingenuity or flexibility of players, and I think that is important to note. The old system of spellcasting was open to much interpretation and caused many problems with players' and GMs' varied interpretations of how effects were supposed to work. The new 4th Edition framework decides exactly how effects are supposed to work, relieving much of the stress of rules arguments, but at the same time removing almost all of the flexibility available to players. Rather than being able to determine some effects of spells and abilities in clever ways, powers are rigid enough in their effects against the framework that there is no interpretation. There are still clever ways to manipulate the battle field, but I would say it relies less on imagination and more on spotting moves that could be made on the board of play.

Never the less, we are still playing and enjoying 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, despite occasional bouts of wanting to explore other systems as a direct consequence of wanting to reject 4th Edition, as well as picking up the 3.5e continuation Pathfinder RPG source book. I think this is partly because of the inertia of the group having picked a system and sticking to it, partly because we are trying to find the good game we hope lies within, and partly because there is actually a good amount of fun to be gained from playing the game. With all its faults, the core elements of Dungeons and Dragons remain, and there is solid framework that allows us to engage in involving combats once a week without getting bogged down in rules or tables. I am still interested in returning to 3.5e or trying the Pathfinder RPG if only to see if my memories of the previous edition are tainted with nostalgia. But even though the flaws of 4th Edition will likely continue to crop up I am happy to persevere, enjoying the banter that flies around the table as much as the miniatures. Maybe an incremental edition, to fix some of the problems, will make the game truly inspriring.

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