Last Thursday my group finally got back to playing our D&D 4e campaign after a brief break due to the holidays. Since I had a lot of time to plan the sessions, I've been writing as in-depth an adventure as possible, even going so far as to emulate the format that published adventures are written in. But I came across a realisation. The structure of 4e adventures are actually really good. Information is presented in an easy-to-digest way most of the time, making it easy to find what you're looking for.
I've begun writing adventures as if they were published modules, even though all the adventures are interlinked. I've started doing a set of three encounters for each 'module', which can vary from skill challenge to combat encounter.
Anyway, I ran the first game of 2011 last week and it went really well. The gripes I had previously were still there, but barely. It pleased me to no end that my players explored the city they travelled to, interacting with NPCs and taking care in what they said and did (harsh legal system). There must have been an hour of pure roleplaying in that game before any combat took place.
Combat is something I've been playing around with too. Previously I talked about how these tactical encounters became hour long wargames where ultimately the PCs would triumph. However, I'm now, like I'm sure many people do, mixing things up in encounters. For instance, the encounter the session ended with saw the players fighting three Cycops and a Winterclaw Owlbear on a moonlit moor. This in itself could have been boring with no effort, but I think combat really shines when you start to add new elements to it. For example, I made it low-light, since the moon was the only light source, which meant the players had to use different tactics that they're used to. I added the usual difficult terrain and cover, but I also created a bunch of squares scattered around that were full of marsh midges. Anyone attacking in a marsh midges square suffered a -2 penalty to attack due to them being distracted by millions of tiny insects flying around them. It was simple, but effective.
So yes, I think I have been a bit too hard on 4e. I still think that it has its flaws, but I think its down to the DM and players to make the game work. There is clearly scope for as much roleplay as ever before, even if it's handled differently. Combat is clearly the focal point of the show, so why not embrace that? Encounters should be exciting and different each time.