4E In Defense of 4E - a New Campaign Perspective
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  1. #1
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    In Defense of 4E - a New Campaign Perspective

    About Me
    I don't want to crowd the thread with too much personal information. I want to get into sharing my experiences of prepping and running a current 4E D&D campaign, but I think a little background bio is in order. I started DMing in 1989 with AD&D 2nd edition and throughout that era, most of my campaigns tended towards narrative and literary driven adventures. I played and ran in Ravenloft extensively, as well as a homebrewed world with analogues to real world cultures. I really came into my own as a DM and writer during 3rd edition. I became a fan of the classic site-based adventures, started collecting old edition modules, and even published a third-party adventure for a popular publisher specializing in classic feel modules.

    Like many people, I was hesitant about 4th edition. I was present at GenCon when Wizards made the announcement. I had a large 3.x library (not to mention a published adventure). I didn't like having to "throw out" all the investment I had made in 3rd edition. We tried out 4E's "Keep on the Shadowfell," and as a group we were unimpressed. It's unsurprising we went all in on Paizo's Pathfinder.

    Except there was a little glimmer that brought me back to 4E. D&D Encounters at my FLGS was more laid back than Pathfinder Society, and it was pretty much the only game in town. So I started running DDE and made many new friends who are still in my gaming group to this day.

    We dragged our feet when D&D Next was announced. The playtest felt choppy, imbalanced. Hoard of the Dragon Queen fared little better. But as the publications improved and it became easier to find a game (and players lining up for this popular incarnation of D&D), 5E easily conquered Pathfinder and 4E (in our local meta).

    Fast forward to 2018. My girlfriend and I went to Origins. She's a newer gamer, having come onto the scene mostly through 5E and Critical Role (though her newness doesn't make her love of the game any less). She was curious about 4E, so we signed up for a game - because, I told her, it would probably be her only chance to play a game of this "rare, extinct edition." The short of it, she LOVED it ... as in "why isn't everyone playing this version" loved it.

    When we got home, sure enough those friends I had met at D&D Encounters spoke up. "Yeah, we really loved that edition of the game. Don't know why we quit playing it."
    Watching videos from Matt Colville and Jim Murphy talking about how much they loved 4E (and still prefer it to 5E) encouraged me to get out the books and read about the design of the game.

    Now remember that I mentioned I was a published designer in 3.5 edition? I had written an adventure in 3.5 that was never published due to the announcement of 4E and before the release of Pathfinder. I was in the process of updating it to 5E and playtesting it, when I got so frustrated that the imbalance of 5E had resulted in multiple TPKs. It was then that I set my sights on bringing back 4E in my local gaming circle.

    I'll add more about my campaign shortly, but I look forward to hearing your experiences with 4E and the transitions between editions.
    Last edited by Retreater; Wednesday, 23rd January, 2019 at 02:39 AM.
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  2. #2
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    Complaints about 4E

    If you've been in the hobby for a decade or so, you've probably heard all the usual complaints about 4E, which I'll try to address here from the perspective of a DM who has tried to sell starting a new 4E campaign in 2019 in the era of what's arguably the most popular edition of D&D ever.

    Combats Take Forever

    This is a hard point to argue. For example, I was recently re-running "Keep on the Shadowfell" with a group to test the waters. A simple combat with goblins took our low level group over an hour to play. We had cards printed out from Character Builder, relatively straight forward characters, and were more or less focused on the game. It could've been the options in combat. It could've been inflated hit points. It could've been triggered reactions. It could have been a variety of issues, but I think I've found a solution.

    In the later days of D&D Encounters, we tried changing the math of the game: decreasing the HP of monsters and increasing the damage. This lead to some overly deadly fights, and while it succeeded in making them shorter, it didn't keep the spirit of the game's design intact.

    It should be noted that no officially published adventure I've yet seen keeps the game's design intact. The issue is that the design of 4E assumes you're not playing D&D - not the traditional D&D we've been playing for most of the game's history at least. Fifty room dungeons with unimportant fights with goblins turn into an unbearable slog. Nowadays when we're adults with busy schedules and meet every couple weeks for 3-4 hours, this is an awful way to play. I did the computations, and it would take over a year meeting regularly to complete the 1-3 level adventure, "Keep on the Shadowfell."

    In 4E combats are set up to be epic set pieces. The adventure design should reflect that paradigm. Yet the "dungeon crawl" assumption of core D&D set 4E up for failure. So my design paradigm would be one big combat a session, bookended with exploration, role play, skill challenges, etc. Each "scene" would award a comparative amount of XP so the game's level progression is not stunted.

    You Can't Roleplay

    This is a bigger issue. Part of it is intertwined by the bad adventure design. When a DM is running a 50-room dungeon and each fight takes an hour, that's a minimum of 12 sessions of just over 4 hours if the group does nothing but fight. Three or six months worth of your game on a low-level adventure (depending on if you meet weekly or biweekly). So it's understandable that the DM pushes nothing but combat. Cutting down the number of battles affords more time for role-playing, world exploration, etc.

    But is there anything in the mechanics that prevents roleplaying? You have roleplaying skills (Diplomacy, Intimidate) tied to ability scores just as you have in 3rd edition, Pathfinder, and 5th edition. So that is no worse than those systems. You have background and fluff text. You have descriptions of monsters, character races, flavor text for powers. Flip through the PHB and the rulebook for a dungeon crawler like Descent, and you'll see that D&D 4E is a roleplaying game through and through.

    Perhaps it's the addition of the Skill Challenge to cover roleplaying situations? Granted, I think the Skill Challenge system is a little mishandled, and it feels like an artificial mini-game within the greater system. I still haven't wrapped my head around it, and honestly, in my new campaign I'm streamlining it. Make a few successful checks or face a consequence. (And honestly, this is how the game has functioned for years.) As a mini-game, it can be pulled out and replaced with something that better rewards player ingenuity and roleplaying.

    The challenge that I've set for myself is to create an engaging world, as rich as any campaign setting I've devised for any edition. I will see how my players interact with it, and I will let that be the test to see if 4E doesn't allow roleplaying.

    What are your thoughts? Do you think 4E combats ran too long? Do you think the design discouraged roleplaying? How did skill challenges work for your group?
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  3. #3
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    "Bored" or "Board"?

    Lack of engagement at the table has been a growing issue in my 5th edition games. And speaking of 5E, maybe I should point out that since the release of 5E, I've run for nine groups comprised of mostly different players, meeting regularly. In addition to homebrewed adventures, I've run Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Lost Mine of Phandelver (3 times), Princes of the Apocalypse (2 times), Out of the Abyss (2 times), Tomb of Annihilation (2 times), and Storm King's Thunder. Even though this thread is mostly going to be about coming back to 4E and the changes I'm making to it, I'm currently running 2 different 5E games in addition to my two 4E games.

    The lack of engagement isn't present at all times with all players, but I think part of it is that there aren't enough interesting things to do on a player's turn and between the player's turn, there is little that changes that involves the disinterested player. The phones come out. Out of character chatters begins. While it's the DM's responsibility to keep players focused and to set house rules about this, I think there's a bigger issue when DMs notice their players are getting bored.

    My girlfriend has described 5E as "I move up, attack, swing my sword at a bag of hit points until one of us drops." I think that can describe the core 5E experience for players (and DMs) who don't elaborate actions outside the mechanics of the game. Sure, you can spice it up by saying "I lunge forward with my rapier, jabbing through the leather jerkin of the fierce goblin, who howls a curse between the blood pooling in his mouth." But this isn't making things mechanically interesting. It isn't really changing anything in the game other than the fluff text.

    But what if you could attack the goblin, slide it into position to be flanked by the rogue, who is able to deliver a sneak attack on the following round? Or the fighter steps forward to issue a challenge so if the goblin attacks you on its turn, the fighter gets a free attack on the goblin to kill it? Both of these actions have occurred on other players' turns, and they dramatically impact your character's actions. Temporary buffs. Healing. Secondary attacks. Creatures that can trigger ferocious abilities on other players' turns. These are all common features of the 4E design paradigm. And you'd better be paying attention - this isn't a passive game! Every player's turn can be exciting, and it's rarely "I'm going to spam this single attack every turn."

    My experience is that this leads to heightened player engagement.
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  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Retreater View Post
    But is there anything in the mechanics that prevents roleplaying?
    Since you specifically ask the question, I will tell you why I can't roleplay in 4E. It's because the rules don't tell us what's actually happening within the game world.

    With earlier editions, the mechanics very much told us what was happening at each step along the way of attempting every task, in as much granularity as we needed to perform those tasks. The mechanics of the game reflected the reality of the game world. There was very little interpretation required. The rules presented one unified language for describing how the world worked, such that we knew any difference in stats represented a real difference within the world. It took some adjustment to understand how that world worked, but once you figured it out, everything made sense.

    Fourth edition was less concrete about things. Minions have one HP, so we know that they die if they take any damage, but what is that supposed to mean within the game world? They can't really be more frail than a level one wizard with 3 Constitution, can they? Even if the minion is an ogre? What about the difference between Encounter powers and re-charge abilities? Why can a PC wizard cast fireball once every five minutes, while an NPC can sometimes cast it two or three times in a row? Are we allowed to acknowledge this? Or the fact that an NPC archer is as accurate as a PC archer of nominally-equivalent skill, even when the PC archer has a magic bow that specifically increases their accuracy?

    I mean, I could go on. I haven't even touched on damage and "healing", or the mutability of fluff, or what's going on the background during a skill challenge. Suffice it to say, 4E didn't feel like a real place. I couldn't pretend that I was really living in that world, because I had no idea how that world really worked.
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  5. #5
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    I still love me some 4e; big ugly warts and all. It is the most honest version of what D&D represents (to me), and the one version that stands out as willing to take some chances by going against preconceived notions. Frankly, they could've done a lot better if they were willing to get further from the source. Good ideas hamstrung by sacred cows. And the execution could have been handled a lot better. Still, it is my favorite.

    Love the thread. I'll need some time to get back and respond to a few ideas. Suffice it to say, anyone willing to roleplay doesn't need specific rules to do it. You can roleplay a game of Monopoly if you have imagination.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
    Since you specifically ask the question, I will tell you why I can't roleplay in 4E. It's because the rules don't tell us what's actually happening within the game world.

    With earlier editions, the mechanics very much told us what was happening at each step along the way of attempting every task, in as much granularity as we needed to perform those tasks. The mechanics of the game reflected the reality of the game world. There was very little interpretation required. The rules presented one unified language for describing how the world worked, such that we knew any difference in stats represented a real difference within the world. It took some adjustment to understand how that world worked, but once you figured it out, everything made sense.

    Fourth edition was less concrete about things. Minions have one HP, so we know that they die if they take any damage, but what is that supposed to mean within the game world? They can't really be more frail than a level one wizard with 3 Constitution, can they? Even if the minion is an ogre? What about the difference between Encounter powers and re-charge abilities? Why can a PC wizard cast fireball once every five minutes, while an NPC can sometimes cast it two or three times in a row? Are we allowed to acknowledge this? Or the fact that an NPC archer is as accurate as a PC archer of nominally-equivalent skill, even when the PC archer has a magic bow that specifically increases their accuracy?

    I mean, I could go on. I haven't even touched on damage and "healing", or the mutability of fluff, or what's going on the background during a skill challenge. Suffice it to say, 4E didn't feel like a real place. I couldn't pretend that I was really living in that world, because I had no idea how that world really worked.
    I understand your complaints. I think any edition of the game - or any media for that matter - assumes a certain level of suspension of disbelief. Any edition of the game has had monsters/opponents who function under different rules and had different abilities. Even in 5E we see kobolds with pack tactics, hobgoblins with phalanx fighting, dragons with recharging breath weapons, liches with frightening gaze attacks. Yet I don't think I've seen players complaining that these creatures bend the rules to challenge the characters. It just comes down to how much you're willing to accept. For me, my limit is: "Does it make the game fun and exciting? Does it cut down on my workload, as DM, when I don't have to follow PC creation rules to make NPC villains?"

    And minions - I love them. I think they fill an important role in the game which no other edition has been able to answer: How do you make a big epic combat with many opponents without bogging down the game and let characters feel badass when defeating them but still have them be challenging? Bonded accuracy has tried to answer this in 5E by making goblins still challenging at slightly higher levels. But I've found they're not quite challenging enough.

    And granted, you're facing Ogre minions when you're pretty high level, if I remember. A 15th level hero facing an ogre from previous editions will find it weaker and less of a challenge than a 15th level ogre minion in 4E, so I don't understand the weakness argument. Especially in 3.x edition that ogre wouldn't be able to hit a high level fighter, and a high level fireball would toast an entire room of them. So this is just keeping things mechanically interesting.
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  7. #7
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    I really enjoyed 4E, I would say the only issues I really had were:

    Properly creating a sense of threat for the player characters.

    The PCs became so good at what they did, both in use of their stats, equipments, abilities, and tactics that became very hard to put the fear of God into them. I often felt like I had to go completely overboard to make a threat real.

    "Forty guardsmen surround the party and another twenty with crossbows aim down from the rooftops. 'Surrender or face immediate execution!' shouts Port Town's bailiff."

    "Eh, we can take 'em." says the party.


    Ability Bloat

    4E, once you got up to level six or so started to get really heavy with the sheer amount of options open to a player at any one point in time. There were many times I found myself or other players hung up during combat because we still aren't sure what we should do. Good old decision paralysis. I'm not sure of a good way to fix this besides simply ignoring most of your abilities.
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  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
    Since you specifically ask the question, I will tell you why I can't roleplay in 4E. It's because the rules don't tell us what's actually happening within the game world.
    And here's where I come back with - 4e presented a narrative approach to playing D&D in a way that the fiddly rules of AD&D and 3e D&D were unable to cope with.

    So I actually found RP-ing in 4e to be easier than any previous edition of D&D because it was easier to play it as a character in a fantasy novel, rather than as a simulation of a fantasy world with its own physics.

    YMMV of course, but I found 4e to be a breath of liberating fresh air both as a DM and as a player because I actually was able to focus on the story and the characters instead of the rules.
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  9. #9
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    I never found RP in 4e difficult. I think they key is to ignore the printed adventures or liberally hack them, and to just play how you want. The game is extremely robust. The only problem youll run into is slow combat, and we found that we could just halve all monster HP values and it works fine.

    I also found that skill challenges are a great framework for rewarding xp for non combat scenes, and for judging the appropriate complexity level of encounters that mix combat with skill tests. I also strongly recommend ignoring all skill challenges rules written before the essentials rules compendium or whatever its called. And/or read Sly Flourishs old articles on running them.

    Also, encourage improvisation, and go farther than the dmg does on page 42. Allow and encourage improvisation of what powers can do, combine powers with skill checks, and feel free to extrapolate from what a power does to let players attempt related things.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by DM Howard View Post
    I really enjoyed 4E, I would say the only issues I really had were:

    Properly creating a sense of threat for the player characters.

    The PCs became so good at what they did, both in use of their stats, equipments, abilities, and tactics that became very hard to put the fear of God into them. I often felt like I had to go completely overboard to make a threat real.

    "Forty guardsmen surround the party and another twenty with crossbows aim down from the rooftops. 'Surrender or face immediate execution!' shouts Port Town's bailiff."

    "Eh, we can take 'em." says the party.
    I chose the make them hit harder option with good success. The DMG42 blog did a great analysis about PC HP vs Monster damage. As PC level when up, monster damage went down relative to PC Hit Point inflation. Thus, you had monsters who did less damage (relatively) at 30th level and than you did at 1st level. They created a revised damage by level table to solve this problem. I tweaked it a little more myself and had good success with it.
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