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5.5E 4e design in 5.5e ?

@EzekielRaiden suggested I post this in its own thread, so blame them if this goes off the rails!

As 5.5 is announced, it is also clear that 4e is having a moment, due in no small part by Matt Colville's recent advocacy and streaming. I never played 4e, but it seems there are a lot of fans of the edition here, and I'm curious as to your take on 4e design, and what 4e have or should be brought over into 5.5. This discussion started by me asking what people thought of Justin Alexander's many criticisms of the system, some of which are here:


So, very much not trying to start an edition war here! So let's be nice to everyone! Rather, looking to gather thoughts on how mechanics from 4e played out at the table (e.g. did they feel "disassociated"), and what should be brought forward into 5.5.
 

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The big thing for me is monster and encounter design.

One of the features they're pimping is the removal of PHB spells from monsters which was the largest proud nail for me when they moved to 5e. I remember the 4e design process where they ostensibly solved all of the issues I had with 3.5, including the ridiculous lists of spells in monster stat blocks. It was perplexing that they threw out their own solution and went back to a paradigm where monsters had multiple spells that would never be used in play and required reference to multiple pages in a separate book to run. I look forward to tossing the 5e design ethic in favor of the cleaner 4e version.

In 4e, the encounter formula was one basic monster of a level was equivalent to a PC of that level for an easy/standard encounter and you could go up or down from there. You could slap together a somewhat appropriate fight within 20 seconds without having to consult a chart or budget, and the result was more balanced (if you're going for balance) than 3e or 5e. That would be something I'd like to see return, but I'm not holding my breath.
 
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Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
I would be happy if the updated version of 5e added more interesting monster abilities which harkens back to some of 4e monster design.

I also hope they take another crack at skill challenges. It never quite worked as written at most tables, but they were very close to nailing that concept down.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Looking back on it, there’s a lot about 4e that strikes me as a deconstructed fantasy RPG that gets experimented on, and that then doesn’t get fully put back together into a synthesized whole. 5e took the 4e experiment and synthesized it back with its roots making a much better D&D, as such, I wouldn‘t want too much to be pushed back in from the cutting room floor - at least not without similar care to wed it to the game’s roots.
 


@EzekielRaiden suggested I post this in its own thread, so blame them if this goes off the rails!

As 5.5 is announced, it is also clear that 4e is having a moment, due in no small part by Matt Colville's recent advocacy and streaming. I never played 4e, but it seems there are a lot of fans of the edition here, and I'm curious as to your take on 4e design, and what 4e have or should be brought over into 5.5. This discussion started by me asking what people thought of Justin Alexander's many criticisms of the system, some of which are here:


So, very much not trying to start an edition war here! So let's be nice to everyone! Rather, looking to gather thoughts on how mechanics from 4e played out at the table (e.g. did they feel "disassociated"), and what should be brought forward into 5.5.
Alright. I'm not sure if this essay is new to me or not (it is, after all, nine years old), but I will approach it as though it were a new one and give my commentary. As I mentioned in that prior thread, I am pretty against both the theory itself and the Alexandrian's presentation thereof. I say this only to make it clear that I am a major skeptic.

To begin, we have a flawed premise, that you can cleanly separate "things my character knows and is aware of" from "things my character could not know and is not aware of." My counter-example for this is FFXIV (yes, a video game!) FFXIV puts great emphasis on what TVTropes calls "gameplay and story integration": almost all mechanics are directly related to the story, even for many things that wouldn't be in other games. Two main examples (among many, MANY others) are "area of effect" markers from enemy attacks, and groups "wiping" (TPK) on content. An in-game power called the Echo explains both narratively--and is critical to some plot points.

The Echo has many mysterious powers, and the PC (and many adventurers) possess it. Some powers are fluffy, like "you understand all languages" or "you see flashbacks about other people," but there's also limited precognition. AoE markers are the Echo forewarning you about your enemies' attacks, so that to them, you're nigh-invincible, dodging everything. This is even story-critical during the Stormblood expansion, where you must fight enemies who have an artificial version, and need a workaround (one that, notably, isn't explained to you, because if you knew how it worked, your enemies could dodge it). The Echo also explains TPKs/"wipes": they don't happen, they're Echo visions of what would happen to cause failure--meaning you can "learn" from mistakes in timelines that never happened.

That's the main, fundamental, fatal flaw with "dissociated" mechanics. Literally any mechanic can be made associated. It's not an inherent property; it arises from personal interpretation. IOW, it depends on what things each player desires an explanation for, and what things they feel have such an explanation. But there are also other issues I'll address later.

Second section, Metagamed and Abstracted, he basically admits that this is not actually a category problem at all, but rather a disagreement over how much explanation is required:
But this generalization can be misleading when taken too literally. All mechanics are both metagamed and abstracted: They exist outside of the character’s world and they are only rough approximations of that world. For example, the destructive power of a fireball is defined by the number of d6’s you roll for damage; and the number of d6’s you roll is determined by the caster level of the wizard casting the spell. If you asked a character about d6’s of damage or caster levels, they’d obviously have no idea what you were talking about. But the character could tell you what a fireball is and that casters of greater skill can create more intense flames during the casting of the spell.

In other words, absolutely all mechanics are necessarily abstracted. And, in many cases, the relationship between those abstractions and the final product is tenuous at best. All we have for numerous spells, for example, is that we know what mechanically happens, and we thus construct from that mechanical knowledge a fiction that works. Ideally, the mechanics conform in all cases to what we would naturally expect--but sometimes they don't. When they don't, we work around it one way or the other, tweaking mechanics to match natural expectations or accepting a break from those naturalist expectations so the mechanics keep going. This is true of literally all games that model anything where naturalistic expectations may apply. (And, as before, you can always invent explanations of the form "characters can tell you what X is and that casters of greater skill create more intense flames"--those are setting elements, not rules elements.)

The subsequent "Explaining It All Away" section is where we get into the hardcore cherry-picking, or rather, willful blindness of long-established mechanics in order to critique new mechanics:
On a similar note, there is a misconception that a mechanic isn’t dissociated as long as you can explain what happened in the game world as a result. The argument goes like this: “Although I’m using the One-Handed Catch ability, all the character knows is that they made a really great one-handed catch. The character isn’t confused by what happened, so it’s not dissociated.” What the argument misses is that the dissociation already happened in the first sentence. The explanation you provide after the fact doesn’t remove it.

To put it another way: The One-Handed Catch ability is a mechanical manipulation with no corresponding reality in the game world whatsoever. You might have a very good improv session that is vaguely based on the dissociated mechanics you’re using, but there has been a fundamental disconnect between the game and the world. You could just as easily be playing a game of Chess while improvising a vaguely related story about a royal coup starring your character named Rook.

As others have noted above: What's the in-advance explanation for an attack that misses? There isn't one, because AC is so many wildly diverse things that all you know, prior to rolling, is that an attack is being made. What's the in-advance explanation of hit points having no specific negative impact until the last one? There isn't one, because HP are so many narratively-distinct things that it's impossible to do anything more than describe vague "wounds" or "that really hurt" etc. (I have zero interest in opening the "are HP meat-points or abstraction-points," so if anyone wishes to debate me on that topic, that wish will not be granted.) What's the in-advance explanation for things like Wizards only gaining new spells in discrete chunks, and in particular, doing so exactly two at a time? There isn't one, even though that's something every Wizard should be intimately familiar with.

There are dozens of mechanics riddled throughout D&D that are naturally "dissociated" unless given a clear in-character explanation. Few, if any, settings provide such explanations. The Alexandrian never had a problem with any of those things. However, when 4e comes along, THEN it becomes a problem. That's blatant special pleading.

The next section, on re-associating mechanics, again conflates setting interpretations with rules elements. Association isn't a rule element; it isn't even a setting element. It is a player interpretation of setting elements, on whether and how those setting elements correlate to the rules elements. Thus, it's incorrect to say that it is a "house rule" to provide post hoc explanations, in setting terms, for so-called "dissociated" mechanics. Both his "this falls afoul of the Rule 0 fallacy" and his "this requires hundreds, perhaps thousands of house-rules" arguments thus completely fall apart. What he's actually opposing here is "reskinning": the idea that a single mechanic can have more than one narrative explanation, and that a single narrative explanation might come from two different sources. 4e radically embraced reskinning, and while 5e is substantially more restrained about it (as it is with almost everything 4e did*), it does engage in some--yet, again, the Alexandrian does not take 5e to task for doing that.

The section on realism is basically him addressing a non-sequitur. My only comment on it is that "realism" does have one thing in common with dissociation: they're both personal interpretation masquerading as objective characteristics of rules. It's why I've exclusively switched to talking about rules being "grounded" rather than "realistic." "Realistic" innately connotes objectivity, while "grounded" innately connotes subjectivity, and "grounded" is allowed to have different meanings in different contexts, while "realistic" is expected to conform, more or less, to the physical world you and I live in.

The penultimate section, which I won't even dignify with quoting, is Mr. Alexander stating his usual gatekeeping screed: some games just are roleplaying games, and thus fit thus-and-such standard, and all the other games just aren't roleplaying games, no matter how much evidence one might show to the contrary. As was mentioned by others above, this is not a conclusion that Mr. Alexander came to after careful analysis of a variety of pieces of evidence. It is a prior belief that he has carefully selected evidence to support. And his whole line about "the act of using associated mechanics IS roleplaying" is absolute hogwash--and, when paired with his foregoing statements about "dissociated" mechanics, it is quite literally telling ardent roleplayers playing 4e "You are having badwrongfun, please start having goodrightfun." Like...anyone who expressly states that "telling a good story" "has nothing to do with roleplaying," I just...I don't know what to say to that person, I lack the words to express how incoherent that statement is.

His final statement is a hilariously-transparent "I'm not trying to hate on you, I'm just trying to hate on you!" band-aid over a bullet wound. Like, I honestly have no idea how he can end how he does when he talks about "Ultimately, this explains why so many people have had intensely negative reactions to dissociated mechanics: They’re antithetical to the defining characteristic of a roleplaying game and, thus, fundamentally incompatible with the primary reason many people play roleplaying games." That's (a) accusation of badwrongfun, (b) elevating "intensely negative reactions" from a subgroup of the community to objective analysis of game design, and (c) presenting his pet theory of what "roleplaying game" means as though it is the one, only, and objective meaning of the term.

I know this is long, but I'm responding to a rather long essay to begin with; brevity was never an option. I hope this has been helpful in communicating exactly why I have so many problems with this specific essay and The Alexandrian in general.

Also, I encourage you, if you are interested in learning more about 4e that doesn't come from parody videos, to both check out the link I included above--it is definitely my "best" post in terms of likes etc. from other posters--and to check out any of Matt Colville's YouTube videos where he talks about 4e. Also, if you're interested, I can offer explanations of why 4e spoke so much to me, and why I was so deeply disappointed that 5e abandoned so much of 4e (or, as noted above, did its absolute best to conceal any 4e mechanics it actually used).
 
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[I never played 4e, but it seems there are a lot of fans of the edition here, and I'm curious as to your take on 4e design, and what 4e have or should be brought over into 5.5.
I think coming right off of the relative failure/rejection that 4e received from many D&D fans at the time (we can go back and forth to no end or purpose about the why or how much of it), the designers were really restarined in how much of 4e they put in 5e (at least obviously). I think now that the vitriol has died down quite a bit, it would be a good time to mine the thing for more of the good things it did.

For me, the biggest thing might be to build up the ritual spell mechanic, allowing the party fighter to (with some feats) be the party ressurector or planar-travel guide, or the like. Others might have other favorite 4e things to favor.
 


niklinna

Looking for group
It's funny, when I started reading the dissociated mechanics essay, I was like, yeah, I didn't like that about 4e either! But then I quickly saw how badly the author was grasping at straws in their arguments. Fact remains that, much as I liked many other things about 4e, I specifically didn't like the encounter/daily time-gating, but not for the reasons the Alexandrian struggled to articulate/justify. Of course, there are several other things I have specifically liked/disliked about every edition of D&D I've played—basic (Holmes) through 5e—not that I need to argue why I'm Right And You're Wrong about any of them.
 
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It's not there already?

Hit dice, short rest abilities, and at will cantrips don't count?
I encourage you to check out the post I linked above. I wrote it, specifically breaking down all the points of design where I felt the two games diverge despite appearing similar (and at least a few places where 5e is more like 4e than 3e!)

The one thing I didn't specifically discuss there was short rest abilities. The fact that 5e changed the short rest to be an entire hour pretty radically changed the nature of short-rest anything in 5e vs 4e. In 4e, short-rest abilities are reliable tools, something you can count on to have basically all the time--with short rests being only five minutes, it's hard but not impossible to enter a combat without all of your short-rest abilities at the ready. Not so with 5e, both intentionally and unintentionally: they very much intended short-rest abilities to be stretched out over 2, or even sometimes 3 combats. They also intended that players would get 2-3 short rests (average 2.5 or a little higher) per day, when in practice, most groups go for 1-2 per day (average 1.5 or a little lower). Short-rest classes were balanced for a playstyle that doesn't, generally speaking, actually happen. So, in both theory and practice, 5e short-rest abilities are a rare spice to be carefully rationed; 4e short-rest abilities are reliable tools meant to be deployed consistently. Again, a case of "vaguely similar, but shorn of critical parts."

That's part of what's going to change in 5.5e, by the by. Most classes that use short-rest things are going to be reworked so that they instead use some variation on the "proficiency bonus per long rest" system. I'm not sure how they intend to fix some of the bigger issue cases, like Battlemaster Fighters and Warlocks who are disproportionately punished by getting few short rests per day, but they'll almost certainly do something.
 

I encourage you to check out the post I linked above. I wrote it, specifically breaking down all the points of design where I felt the two games diverge despite appearing similar (and at least a few places where 5e is more like 4e than 3e!)

The one thing I didn't specifically discuss there was short rest abilities. The fact that 5e changed the short rest to be an entire hour pretty radically changed the nature of short-rest anything in 5e vs 4e. In 4e, short-rest abilities are reliable tools, something you can count on to have basically all the time--with short rests being only five minutes, it's hard but not impossible to enter a combat without all of your short-rest abilities at the ready. Not so with 5e, both intentionally and unintentionally: they very much intended short-rest abilities to be stretched out over 2, or even sometimes 3 combats. They also intended that players would get 2-3 short rests (average 2.5 or a little higher) per day, when in practice, most groups go for 1-2 per day (average 1.5 or a little lower). Short-rest classes were balanced for a playstyle that doesn't, generally speaking, actually happen. So, in both theory and practice, 5e short-rest abilities are a rare spice to be carefully rationed; 4e short-rest abilities are reliable tools meant to be deployed consistently. Again, a case of "vaguely similar, but shorn of critical parts."

That's part of what's going to change in 5.5e, by the by. Most classes that use short-rest things are going to be reworked so that they instead use some variation on the "proficiency bonus per long rest" system. I'm not sure how they intend to fix some of the bigger issue cases, like Battlemaster Fighters and Warlocks who are disproportionately punished by getting few short rests per day, but they'll almost certainly do something.

Maybe what bothers me about some of what Alexander calls disassociated mechanics is not just that they are abstracted but actually that it is somewhat difficult to reattach what happened in the game back to the fiction. So a mechanic that says, you can trip someone 4 times per day feels disassociated for me (why only 4 times?), whereas saying they have a 20% of tripping an opponent if they try seems more consistent within the fiction. Or, as I understand it, 13th age doesn't have rests; your abilities just reset after X number of encounters. How does one attach that to the fiction, even after the fact? So it kinda strikes me as the inverse of the OSR principle to not look at your character sheet, because in these instances the only way, it seems, that you would understand what's going on in the fiction is if you looked at your character sheet and saw, oh yes, this comes off cooldown now, or I've run out of uses for this ability.

Into the Odd is one game that made the equivalent of "short rests" make sense for me, because HP is "Hit Protection" and defined as your character's energy and ability to dodge and such, whereas the characters strength score can be damaged and that represents actual physical injury.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think if there’s one useful thing that can be derived from the dissociated mechanics essay, it’s that there are some mechanics that require the player to make decisions based on factors that don’t directly arise from the fiction. However, I think every conclusion he draws from this observation is faulty, almost certainly due to the fact that he started from a place of trying to rationalize why he didn’t like 4e.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I think if there’s one useful thing that can be derived from the dissociated mechanics essay, it’s that there are some mechanics that require the player to make decisions based on factors that don’t directly arise from the fiction. However, I think every conclusion he draws from this observation is faulty, almost certainly due to the fact that he started from a place of trying to rationalize why he didn’t like 4e.
Rationalize or put into words/a conceptual framework?
Seems to me a lot of people‘s approach to Justin Alexander’s analysis are just as subject to rationalization depending on their feelings about 4e. The bottom line is either his approach makes sense to you or it doesn’t and whether or not that is true probably depends on whether you feel the same disconnect as he did with 4e.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
It's not there already?

Hit dice, short rest abilities, and at will cantrips don't count?
Hit dice are not like healing surges in any of the ways that actually matter. They are superficially similar, but their design role and gameplay function are completely different. The same can pretty much be said of short rest abilities. At-will cantrips though are indeed an example of 4e design in 5e. It’s definitely present, but it’s largely kept very low-key.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Rationalize or put into words/a conceptual framework?
Same thing. The point is, he started from “I don’t like 4e” and then worked his way backwards from there, which is a poor way to do analysis. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, it causes you to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.
Seems to me a lot of people‘s approach to Justin Alexander’s analysis are just as subject to rationalization depending on their feelings about 4e. The bottom line is either his approach makes sense to you or it doesn’t and whether or not that is true probably depends on whether you feel the same disconnect as he did with 4e.
I understand the disconnect he had with 4e. I don’t experience it in the same way he did, but I recognize a meaningful difference in 4e’s gameplay feel from that of other editions of D&D, and I think it’s perfectly valid to not like 4e because of that difference. But in trying to form a conceptual framework that could explain his preference objectively, he ended up committing a number of logical fallacies and ended up forming an argument that just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
 

Maybe what bothers me about some of what Alexander calls disassociated mechanics is not just that they are abstracted but actually that it is somewhat difficult to reattach what happened in the game back to the fiction. So a mechanic that says, you can trip someone 4 times per day feels disassociated for me (why only 4 times?), whereas saying they have a 20% of tripping an opponent if they try seems more consistent within the fiction. Or, as I understand it, 13th age doesn't have rests; your abilities just reset after X number of encounters. How does one attach that to the fiction, even after the fact? So it kinda strikes me as the inverse of the OSR principle to not look at your character sheet, because in these instances the only way, it seems, that you would understand what's going on in the fiction is if you looked at your character sheet and saw, oh yes, this comes off cooldown now, or I've run out of uses for this ability.

Into the Odd is one game that made the equivalent of "short rests" make sense for me, because HP is "Hit Protection" and defined as your character's energy and ability to dodge and such, whereas the characters strength score can be damaged and that represents actual physical injury.
Do you have any examples of specific 4e powers like this? Part of the reason many 4e fans are not keen on such responses is that one, and only one, specific group of classes actually gets subjected to them: martial classes. No one has any problem with the idea that a magical effect can only be used once per combat, but as soon as something is martial, it (for whatever reason) must be bound by what actual, literal human beings in our real, physical world can do. (Even though most people have a pretty bad understanding of the upper limits of human achievement, so it in practice ends up more like "what I, personally, think is possible for a human to do based solely on what I, personally, find difficult to do.")

When the complaint unduly affects the one group within D&D design that has been consistently deprived of opportunities to play at the same level of power and engagement as other groups, it implies a concern about some abstract notion (such as "consistency," "verisimilitude," etc.) being more important than ensuring that most players' desired fantasy gets reasonable and effective representation within the game. Some would disparagingly summarize that as "I can't have fun unless casters are more powerful than non-casters." While that is obviously reductive, it does point to a serious, ongoing issue with D&D design, where anything that tends to be kind to non-casters without also being kind to casters, people find a justification to dislike, and anything that tends to be unkind to casters without also being unkind to non-casters is treated as a horrible affront.
 

darjr

I crit!
I think if there’s one useful thing that can be derived from the dissociated mechanics essay, it’s that there are some mechanics that require the player to make decisions based on factors that don’t directly arise from the fiction. However, I think every conclusion he draws from this observation is faulty, almost certainly due to the fact that he started from a place of trying to rationalize why he didn’t like 4e.
I dunno. His essay highlighted what was bugging me about 4e. About the fact that the fluff really meant nothing.

I came to the conclusion that in a game I like the fluff interacts with mechanics and should do so. In 4e it seemed the design strived for the opposite.

For instance I ran a 5e game where a player had to pick a trigger for his rage. He picked roses. Before that the presence of a rose was just fluff, now their presence were mechanics.

In 4e fluff never seemed to matter, one example was I had NPC's throwing magic shurikens in an adventure. They were refluffed magic missile. A player, a monk, really wanted to pick them up. All of a sudden I had to come up with a reason why, or just say, no the rules don't let you, which kinda sucks in the middle of a game. Normally that isn't a big deal, but something like that would happen A LOT A LOT in 4e games. Especially in Encounters and official content. I found myself mentally exausted from constantly having to justify fluff that didn't match what the rules were doing. And while it isn't an inherent thing in 4e, 4e by it's design with a hard seperation between fluff and rules all but enforced it.

though folks mileage may vary.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
There’s a fair amount already in 5E.

This thread is helpful.

What should be brought forward...

4E skill challenges...though looser and better presented.

4E monster design.

4E clarity of the math behind the game.

4E monster types: minions, standard, elite, solo; monster roles: skirmisher, brute, soldier, etc; and the bloodied condition.

4E monster lore checks listed with the monsters.

4E encounter design.

4E classes like the warlord and the swordmage.

4E bonuses and scaling. Your level and training mattered more than your d20 roll after a certain point. That was nice.

4E World Axis cosmology.

4E Dawn War.

4E Nentir Vale and Points of Light.

4E split between rituals and combat magic.

4E residuum.

I loved almost everything about 4E except how clunky it played, how long it took to resolve combats, and near pure focus on combat.
 


darjr

I crit!
There’s a fair amount already in 5E.

This thread is helpful.

What should be brought forward...

4E skill challenges...though looser and better presented.

4E monster design.

4E clarity of the math behind the game.

4E monster types: minions, standard, elite, solo; monster roles: skirmisher, brute, soldier, etc; and the bloodied condition.

4E monster lore checks listed with the monsters.

4E encounter design.

4E classes like the warlord and the swordmage.

4E bonuses and scaling. Your level and training mattered more than your d20 roll after a certain point. That was nice.

4E World Axis cosmology.

4E Dawn War.

4E Nentir Vale and Points of Light.

4E split between rituals and combat magic.

4E residuum.

I loved almost everything about 4E except how clunky it played, how long it took to resolve combats, and near pure focus on combat.
Uh... 4e is still out there. Most of this I'd take a hard pass on, but there IS 4e. People are playing it.
 

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