Sunday 17 November 2019

D&D 4e: a daring triumph of design

I was up in the early hours of the morning the other day after travelling back from New York and suffering from jet lag fun times. I decided on a whim to open up the 4e Essentials Rules Compendium and read it pretty much cover to cover because that's the kind of cool nerd I am. When I used to play 4e in my two year campaign I loved the Compendium. Its digest size made it easy to sling in my backpack and it's really easy to read.

Fourth edition is maligned, and there are some fairly good reasons for that. It entirely revamped the game of D&D - it broke its own rules and altered the way the game was run. Sprawling billion room dungeons were replaced for the most part with larger set-pieces created for the larger than life combat the game necessitated. The spell lists of editions gone by were stripped away in favour of individual class spell powers. Hell, saving throws were pretty much removed - existing only for a few occasions (roll over 10 and you're golden). Abilities pretty much only focused on combat - very few had good roleplaying potential. 4e was a system shock, it was plunging your head into a bucket of ice.

But when I read the Compendium I realised how tight this game is. This is engineered, perhaps over-engineered, but it works. I read through some Dungeon adventures originally put out on DDI (remember that?) and Reavers of Harkenwold. Oh my, Reavers of Harkenwold. I've not run it, but this is a really great-looking adventure and others have corroborated this.

It struck me that in completely redesigning the game, the designers took a huge risk, but honestly I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Like, they really do - you just have to realise that you're playing a different D&D experience and lean into it.

While back in the day you had some class and racial abilities (still my favoured way to play), in 4e you fly right out of the gate with crackling lightning hands, magnificent duelling abilities and healing upon healing. You're not a pot washer with a stick - you're a Hero. These powers (daily, encounter, at-will, utility) basically put everyone on a level playing field. The 4e experience obviously skews towards big combat, it was specifically designed this way, and powers make combats exciting. You're not just attacking with strength or dex - powers allow you to use other abilities, meaning no dump stats. Everyone had a role. Literally. Controller, striker, leader and defender - yes, videogame parlance, but useful. Immediately you know what your character is about when it comes to combat, but there's no reason you can't have multiple roles.

4e knows it's a game and makes playing more intuitive as a result. I really don't hate measuring in squares instead of feet. From a game perspective - because you're playing a game - it makes sense. This extends to other aspects of its design.

Why all the focus on combat? Because combat is structured. You know where you stand with combat because of the feedback loop. Mearls Heinsoo and co wanted to make the game as easy to run as possible. Basically plug and play, give the DM bandwidth to focus on character development, NPCs and creating an experience. The way powers and spells are written are basically if this then that code - easy to parse. Ambiguity was tossed aside and replaced with concrete design, something Pathfinder would also do. The designers had vision - they knew the kind of game they were setting out to make.

This obsession with engineering a program that we call D&D translates the best to monster design. Kobold isn't just a little dragon chap with a spear. Now Kobold could be a Kobold Soldier, a Kobold Slinger, a Kobold Knight etc. Each plays differently, having their own roles. The DM immediately knows how to play an artillery monster and the tactics section makes this abundantly clear. They're also not just prodding you with a spear anymore - they're using powers, status effects, auras - lots of them. A goon might allow an ally to move after an attack, or have an aura that helps its fortitude. When I DM'd 4e I couldn't wait to see how enemies played. The game made it super easy to build an encounter. Plug and play.

Everything was an encounter. Why? It all comes back to the feedback loop. If the designers could make exploration like combat, it would once again free up DM bandwidth. Enter, skill challenges. Yes, these were confusing and badly explained. But at the heart of them, skill challenges were a daring piece of design. They could represent a group effort over five minutes, five hours, five days, or even five months. They never really were explained well, even in Essentials, but I admire what they were going for.

I'm going to wrap this up here by saying that no edition is better than the other. Each offers a different experience. It's a flavour. 4e is inspired by videogames, but that's not a bad thing. The designers dared to have a vision, even if that meant entirely reinventing the most popular roleplaying game ever.


  1. Gotta agree with this.
    4e was a weird little game, but it was really good at its niche.

  2. 4e always felt more like a boardgame than a "role-playing" game to me, but it does WORK as a boardgame.

    The single-roll skill challenges (which I think were much-maligned at the time) feel like a way of thinking about within-game time that paves the way for several PBTA moves and Torchbearer's whole approach to "turns". Skill challenges are also a place where role playing COULD shine ... or where you could skip playing a role in favor of moving quickly through the scenario.

    1. Like a boardgame, 4th Edition greatly simplifies effects across the board. This much is definitely true. The vast majority of effects are very straightforward and could easily fit on a small playing card - which indeed is how many people approach things.

      However, even though "roleplaying game" connotes lengthy rules that address each kind of effect or aspect in great detail, this isn't actually required for roleplaying. In fact, the removal of a lot of it makes running 4th Edition much easier. Notably, a monster stat block can be more self-contained, because it doesn't have as much need to refer to specialized rules outside of it. An enemy mage doesn't have to say "magic missile (as the spell)" it can just print the whole power - assuming the designer doesn't feel like creating a power that's more thematic for the monster.

      This results in much less flipping through the rules and much more time for "roleplaying" (whatever that means to someone).

    2. You make a great point. 4E attempted to actually make RP EASIER. They did this by reducing or removing a lot of non combat rules so that RP could be free flowing. If you WANTED rules for RP, you could use a skill challenge. Otherwise, just let it go and call for an occasional skill check if skills come into play. This was a breath of fresh air from previous skill systems and how they interacted with RP. And you know it was largely successful because the 5E skill system and rules are nearly a direct lift from 4E. One place where 4E and 5E is nearly identical is in their lack of RP centric rules and a very simple and clean skill list/system.

  3. Thanks for this in depth appreciation of 4th edition. Have you tried Heroes Against Darkness (free pdf). It seems like 4th lite.

  4. I agree that it had merits and the mechanics were solid. My problem with it just didn't seem like D&D to me. D&D started out as a survival simulation and seemed to take all aspect of that away. And while it made sense that everyone had super powers I did not like that in the D&D context. A fighter should have no way to heal itself through some super power nor a barbarian.

    1. Another great thing about the game is that it loosens up what things "meant." Quick HP recovery is no longer always supernatural, which means that it's not (or doesn't have to be) jarring for a "mundane" character to do it. I hope that helps.

  5. Have you checked out 13th Age? It was co-designed by Rob Heinsoo, and retains a lot of what I love about 4e while offering new elements that speed up combat and encourage more player agency.

  6. 4E is great. We just finished up a years long campaign that started with Reavers of Harkenwold. That was a fantastic starter adventure. Better even that Lost Mines of Phandelver, which is also awesome. My group stopped playing 4E to play 5E. But after 2 years and a 20 level campaign, we went back to 4E. Why? Because it's just better. It's deeper, with more options and its STILL easier to prep and run. You're absolutely right about the clean rules freeing up bandwidth for the DM to create stories and moments. It does that in spades. You're never looking up rules in a book or spells or monster stats because they're all in the stat block. Building encounters is so easy it still blows my mind that ditched that design in 5E. Skill challenges are great. They solve so many problems. I can't say enough good things about it. Suffice it to say, I'm still playing it. And it's not because I don't know and understand the other editions. In fact, it's because I DO.

    1. I agree with you about Reavers of Harkenwold. We need more starting adventures written like this one.

  7. I started playing with the Mentzer Red Box in 1990 and 4th Edition is my favorite edition. I've mostly boiled it down to the fact that 4th Edition fulfills the promise of the Larry Elmore art on those boxed sets: my fighter can go up against a dragon and it might actually be fun instead of just a death-spiral slog or instant kill of the fighter.

    I love that there are few, of any, bad choices or combinations in 4th Edition, and few that were vastly more powerful than any other. In 3.5, fighters were a joke, except as a multiclass dip. Mastery of the game included knowing this and just not taking that class. But in 4th Edition it's as viable as any other class.

    And yet, no class is essential. Most groups like to have all the roles covered, but it's not a problem if they're not. A group doesn't even need a "leader" to heal them, since every character can heal itself. A leader just makes it easier.

    I mostly DM and 4th Edition is a DM's dream. Skill Challenges are amazing. Even if the exact rules and examples in the DMG didn't work exactly as presented, the concept is brilliant and has finally helped me not fear non-combat situations. Monster design is amazing and it's easy to have a threat group consisting of varied and synergistic members, and even to combine them with a trap or a skill challenge.

    Genius concepts in 4th Edition:
    Minions: "scrub" monsters that are easy to run but not easy to wipe out with a single fireball.
    Implements: "Weapons" for casters.
    Rituals: non-combat spells, which anyone can learn to cast.
    Feat-based multiclassing: quick and easy way to take on traits of another class - or even of a class that doesn't actually exist.
    Many ways to do the same thing: Many concepts have a race, a class or a feat that can bring them about.
    Monsters not made like characters: That's fairly old-school, really, but monster powers don't have to be "as the spell," they can be completely unique.

    I could go on. Anyway, thanks for the article. I doubt 4th Edition will truly resurge, but it's great to see people openly admitting that they enjoy it.

  8. I am so glad there is still 4th ed love out there. I resisted playing 5th ed for so long because 4th ed is my favorite edition. I play 5th ed because my friends favor 5th, but I still try and run 4th ed adventures we some other friends when I can.

    1. I know that feeling. My DM loves Warhammer 40K skirmish games and he loves D&D. I think he'd enjoy 4e, but he picked up 5e, and now that he owns the books, it has inertia.

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