D&D 4E Let's Talk About 4E On Its Own Terms [+]

This will likely be my last post for some time, but I did say that I would try to make a post today, and an elephant’s faithful, 100%.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, my love of fantasy comes primarily from cartoons of the late 70s and early to mid 80s. Specifically, Thundar, Blackstar, Galtar, He-Man, and Thundercats. These were cartoons focused upon warriors, some of whom began as mighty, and others who grew into a force to be reckoned with, who fought evil sorcerers.

As a result of the above, and much of the fantasy literature which was readily available in the very early 90s, I grew to love the archetype of the fantasy warrior.

4e was the first time in any game system, and I have tried a bunch, where I felt that I could emulate those seminal cartoon warriors who so impacted me. Want to be He-Man? 4e has you covered. Dirk the Daring? 4e. Lion-O? 4e has your back. 300’s Leonidas? Dude, Tide of Iron, and down with Xerxes.

About the only thing which wasn’t covered by the 4e Fighter at release was cover in Martial Power 1, then 2, then finally with the Slayer in Essentials.

No other D&D game gave a fighter who was at the same level as the other classes and had moments of awesome either built in or available from level 1 to end game.

For that, I will always treasure 4th Edition, as it finally let me play the heroes that got me into this hobby in the first place.

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Red Castle

I played a lot of adnd2 in the 90s, that’s the edition with which I learned about roleplay. Years later, I got tired of medieval fantasy so I started playing other rpgs, then came college and when 3e came out, I tried it a little, but nothing hooked me, so I skipped it. Fast forward to 2008. A friend of mine decide to make me try 4e… I didn’t even knew that there was a 4e. I decide to play a fighter, a good old fighter, nothing fancy. Then the first combat start, and wow! That’s when I realise that as a fighter, I’m not just swinging a sword! I have ‘powers’ too, I can force enemy to move, I can guard my friends and punish the enemies that ignore me. I have a role to play! I was hooked and went to buy the books so I could start my own campaign.

When teaching the game to other friends, I remember one of them was really turned off by the lack of skills. Only 17-18 versus the 100+ of 2e. He felt like suddenly there was no personnalisation, that every character would be able to do the same thing (thievery not limited to rogue !? ). I didn’t really tried 4e and came from the same background, so what I did was split each skills into 3 possible specialisations and you could choose to be better in one at the cost of another. It’s only when we really started playing that we appreciated the simplicity of having a low skill count. So we went back to playing as we should. No more specialisation. So simple!

Something similar happened when I was reading the Monster Manual… at first, I was a little disappointed that the monster lacked descriptions, that it was just a series of bullet point to give me a feel of the creatures. But nothing really to tell me how they behave, where they live… far from the 3-4 pages of descriptions from the 2nd edition monster manual. But then, it hit me. I can do what I want with these creatures, these are just suggestions. There is not a lot of lore that I must respect, that I must memorize… those creatures are what I want them to be, my own. It’s so simple!

Same went for the powers! At first I was surprised by the lack of description. Just one or two phrases to tell me what is a magic missle? A fireball? Where are the 3-4 paragraph that tells me how it looks, how it smells, what components I need? Then it hit me! It can look and smells and feels however the player want it to be! He can make those spells his own! It’s so simple!

And that’s what I love so much about 4e! It kept it simple so the DM and players can do what they want with it! It’s a giant tool box to tell your own story in a high fantasy world! And with each books came more tools to put in the box!


One thing I am interested in is, given how many PHBs and DMGs were produced, plus essentials, is what is the "final" or "correct" or "true" version of 4E. One criticism I recall is that they did so much updating via DDI that the books got out of date quickly. Was that true? if so, if you buy, say, the PDFs of the 4E books on DMsGuild, are they updated with said errata? Are they even usable?
It's been awhile, so memory is hazy, but I remember this to be 100% the case with the first Players Handbook. It was kind of a joke in our group that it was only good to "get and idea" of the character you would want to build, then you would actually make it online.

Now, how substantial those changes actually were? That I don't remember. The only outright "mistake" I can recall was overtuning the first adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell which led to lots of TPKs.

As for an updated PDF... no, not for this version. All the corrections made were done via the Character Builder, Monster Builder, etc... This was still at the time WotC wanted nothing to do with the PDF format. Also, since the online tools required a monthly paid subscription, there wasn't much incentive to "fix" things in an outside document. That said, if some superfans manually compiled all the changes somewhere, that would be neat to see...

But truthfully, maybe the answer is Essentials? It was the best version of the game from a mechanical perspective. Maybe if it had some time to grow, it would have "caught up" to the core line's material?
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I feel like this was an edition designed around online tools. No one I knew built characters manually, and even now, people will usually point you toward the offline character builder that fans have updated. At the time when I started (around the time Essentials came out), I was happy to pay my monthly fee for access to everything. And it would have been much harder with just books. Like the 4e errata document is 151 pages long. And while that includes things like small errors on adventures, PHB1's section is 28 pages long. But someone using the tools never had to worry about that, since they'd always have the most up to date version of everything.

While I think it's pretty well known that the combat system has been influential on the indie scene, with it being a clear influence on stuff like Lancer, Icon, Gubat Banwa, Princess Wing, MCDM's upcoming game, etc., skill challenges have also been pretty influential. They were just iterated on again and turned into "Clocks," which plenty of indie games use.

And as someone who thinks this is the best edition of D&D and went back to it after getting frustrated with 5e, I do think the system still has its flaws, and they're worth talking about:
  • There's so many god damn feats. Like hundreds. And at least half of them are useless or so situational that no one's ever going to take them. And if you do, since you get one every other level, you're probably going to forget the situational ones even exist by the time they come up. And instead of fixing some of the old feats, they instead added new feats that are basically the old feats but better, but also don't stack with the old feats, and the old feats are still there. Like in the last campaign I ran, I had to tell a player that they should swap out the feat they took that gave them +1 to all non-armor defenses for another that did that but also scaled as you leveled, and she was clearly frustrated by the fact that the game offered her a feat choice that was basically wrong. Even with me and my experienced players, we usually just look at an optimization guide to see what feats are worth taking rather than read through hundreds of ones that aren't to find a diamond in the rough. If anything should have been simplified for Essentials, it was this.
  • Unless you're only playing with Essentials classes, you're going to have a lot of marks, curses, etc. out there, and even with Essentials, you're still going to have plenty of status effects going around. I play almost exclusively on VTTs at this point, so it's not a big deal for me to add another symbol to a token, but I feel like it'd be a lot harder to keep track of at a physical table.
  • Until my last campaign, I'd really only played the game in Heroic tier (levels 1-10, and usually it was on the lower end of that), but now that I've done one that got a bit into Paragon (levels 11-20), I really did start to feel the whole problem of turns taking longer and longer as the players got more powers they had to look through. And it's not even just on their own turns, since sometimes they'll be like "Wait, hold on, I think I have an interrupt for that...let's see...this! Oh wait, no, that won't work because..." I feel like the game works best at lower levels.
  • I recently watched a video about first impressions of the MCDM system, and one person there started talking about 4e and said something like "Everyone felt amazing at first level, and they were excited for how much more amazing their characters would be at higher level. But higher level characters aren't more amazing, they're just more complicated." I've been thinking about that ever since, and after that last campaign, I think he might be right.
  • There's definitely some poorly designed classes by the end. Seeker never got the supplements to make it work, Runepriest seemed like it should have been a cleric subclass, Bladesinger at best felt like a first draft, and Binder tried turning the Warlock into a controller by making it worse at damage in exchange for literally nothing of value.
And for one more positive I haven't seen yet: monks are great in this edition. They just wreck everyone around them in a way that feels good and supports the underlying fantasy. You can be a charisma powered monk whose rage causes fire to spew from you firsts. It's a shame that the 5e monk wasn't designed around this iteration.
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Apropos of long combats, we just had one that went on for ten hours and two-and-a-half game sessions. I wouldn't say anyone's turns took especially long, since we're in lower paragon (and I suspect that we're not especially optimised for interrupts outside of our battlemind) but there were a lot of turns. (The long and short of it was that we riled up the whole dungeon, so the first phase of the fight was destroying one of the major subgroups, and the second phase was trying to run from the rest of them!)

There wasn't any time during the combat where I would say my attention was especially flagging, but it does help playing online that you can kind of tune out a little. (On the plus side, my paladin cast wrath of the gods on the first turn of the encounter, so boy howdy did we get some serious value out of it!)

I enjoyed myself, but I can see how people who like shorter, sharper fights would have found it a very frustrating experience.

@Dustin Cooper mentions too many feats. I would say the same for powers. Also, for PHB1 and PHB2 classes, the fact that everyone used the same AEDU structure makes everyone feel Vancian, whether that fit the class fantasy or not.


Fourth Edition successfully appealed to hardcore gamers who otherwise weren't interested in the D&D system. Of all the editions, it probably had the tightest coupling between its design goals and its mechanics. It largely knew what game it wanted to be and was designed with that in mind, and really there were only a few places where its math failed and it required house ruling which is a vastly higher rate of mechanical success than every single other edition of D&D.

In terms of its influence on other designs, I think it's decision to kill the sacred cow of having 1 hit dice worth of hit points at first level was probably it's most daring and most ingenious. It certainly influenced my own design work.

I think also that in the long run, it's decision to go ahead and explicitly create "boss monsters" with special boss powers to solve a long running problem with single monsters in action economies is probably also going to be considered very influential and often repeated.

And that's all I have to say.
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Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I punted out of 4e after about 9 months of play and never went back to it. One of my problems with it was it was too grindy. Granted, this was apparently before "math got fixed" but by then it was too late. Plus, there were a LOT of other things that I didn't like about it.

But of the things I DID like about it:
Layout and clarity - 4e was definitely easy to grasp, the books easy to reference with lots of bullet points and shading boxes, the higher-contrast with printed text white pages instead of the varieties of tan/yellow/brown we've had in 3e/5e. I'd LOVE for WotC to reengage some of those layout principles and ideas.
DMG page 42 - while there are some issues I have with the table, it does help make improvised actions easier to adjudicate
DMing advice - the DMGs have explicit, good, 1-2 page sections of advice on a number of topics that frequently get short shrift


My two favourite posts about 4e D&D:
4e Classic (4eC) sings with the right group, but requires a high degree of player buy-in to get the results that I want out of it. I tend to view 4eC as a visceral game about violently capable individuals who set out willingly or not to irrevocably enact change in their worlds who end up becoming mythic figures in their own right. This is highly reinforced in the assumed setting of the game with the backdrop of the Dawn War, tales of the fall of civilizations, and highly active Gods, Demon Princes, Primordials, etc. 4eC presents a world on fire in desperate need of heroes. Thematically it strikes the same currents that Greek Myth, the Diablo games, and Exalted does though tied to a more mortal perspective.

Of course to really embrace these aspects players need to be able to shift between awareness of the game's narrative to engaging its combat encounter mini-game while remaining focused on the underlying fiction. 4eC asks a lot out of the players, but I find the relatively unique combination of satisfying my narrative jones while engaging my tactical/strategic mind incredibly refreshing.
How the imagined content in the game changes in 4E as the characters gain levels isn't quite the same as it is in 3E. I am not going to pretend to have a good grasp of how this works in either system, but my gut says: in 4E the group defines the colour of their campaign as they play it; in 3E it's established when the campaign begins.

That's kind of confusing... let me see if I can clarify as I work this idea out for myself.

In 3E, climbing a hewn rock wall is DC 25. That doesn't change as the game is played (that is, as fiction is created, the game world is explored, and characters grow). Just because it's DC 120 to balance on a cloud doesn't mean that characters can't attempt it at 1st level; they'll just always fail. The relationship between colour and the reward system doesn't change over time: you know that, if you can score a DC 120 balance check, you can balance on clouds; a +1 to your Balance check brings you that much closer to success.

In 4E, I think the relationship between colour and the reward system changes: you don't know what it will mean, when you first start playing, to make a Hard Level 30 Acrobatics check. Which means that gaining levels doesn't have a defined relationship with what your PC can do in the fiction - just because your Acrobatics check has increased by 1, it doesn't mean you're that much closer to balancing on a cloud. I think the group needs to define that for themselves; as far as I can tell, this is supposed to arise organically through play, and go through major shifts as Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies enter the game.
I think these posts really capture the feel, the themes, and the gameplay of 4e.


Easy encounter on the fly. Throw X monsters with level equal to the party level.

Otherwise the math of 4ed was unforgiving. roughly a monster 5 level higher mean that player need 15 to hit him, while thismonster need a 5 to hit the PC. So encounter were forced to have monsters that roughly match PCs level.
I used 33rd level Orcus in an encounter with 29th level PCs. And at the other end of the game, I used a 4th level Goblin underboss against 2nd level PCs. I think generally going more than 2 or 3 levels below the PCs makes for fairly easy opponents, and going more than 3 or 4 levels above is pointless - you're better of rebuilding the standard as an elite or the elite as a solo.

In terms of overall encounter difficulty, at Heroic I found that 4 levels over the PCs makes for a pretty challenging and involved encounter. By epic tier that is more like 8 levels over: paragon and epic tier PCs give their players a tremendous depth of resources to draw on.

higher level characters aren't more amazing, they're just more complicated.
Well, a RPG has basically two components - its fiction and its mechanics. Higher level PCs in 4e grow in respect of both components. Their mechanics become increasingly complex - the depth of resources that I referred to - and that allows players to pull of more interesting mechanical performances.

If the table follows the advice found in the PHB and DMG under "tiers of play", the fiction also becomes more complex and involved: both the local/tactical fiction (eg as PCs get higher level they can fly, turn invisible, walk through walls, teleport great distances, return from the dead, etc) and also the more global and strategic fiction (eg the places the PCs travel, their allies and enemies, the stakes of their conflicts, etc).

In this respect, I do think that higher level 4e characters are more amazing.

I do think this is an area where 4e modules did not deliver on the promise of the 4e rulebooks. Here's an old post I made about that:
In 4e, once PCs reach 11th level they take on a paragon path - the PCs in my 4e game are a Demonskin Adept, a Warpriest of Moradin, a Questing Knight, a Radiant Servant and a Divine Philosopher. Other Paragon Paths include being a Knight Commander, a Kensai or Swordmaster, etc. As the names of these paths indicate, they bring with them fictional elements as well as mechanical elements. It's a bit like an AD&D fighter reaching name level and becoming a Lord has consequences for the fiction - the fighter can now become a noble and attract men-at-arms to his/her castle - as well as mechanical consequences.

Now Open Grave - the 4e undead sourcebook - has a fun little buried tower scenario called "Bloodtower on the Moorland", for 12th-level PCs. I've had a fondness for buried towers ever since Best of White Dwarf Scenarios 2, which has a mini-adventure in a tower buried in the desert, and I'm hoping to use this Open Grave one as part of the Vecna-cult plotline in my current game.

But as presented, the scenario begins in this way:

The PCs are visiting or passing through a city that lies near the moorland. While taking a meal at a local watering hole, they overhear a resident relating the following story.​

Now, what the hell is going on when 12-level PCs - Knight Commanders, Demonskin Adpets or whatever - are taking a meal at a local watering hole? As opposed to, for example, dining in the halls of the baron or the mayor! I regard this as yet another weakness in 4e adventure design - beside the inherent lameness of so many of the plot hooks, they tend to expressly contradict the game's default fictional content, which in relation to paragon tier PCs is as follows(PHB pp 28-29):

In the paragon tier, your character is a shining example of heroism, set well apart from the masses.. . the fate of a nation or even the world might hang in the balance as you undertake momentous quests... When you face a dragon, it is a powerful adult who has established a lair and found its place in the world. Again, much like you.​

In my view shining examples of heroism, on whose deeds the fate of the world turns, who have found their places in the world and who are set well apart from the masses, don't start their quests in a local watering hole (absent special circumstances of the Aragorn variety). In my view it is this sort of bad adventure writing, as much as if not more than the mechanical design, that leads to the suggestion that there is no "progression" in 4e, and that as they level the PCs just go through the same dungeons with bigger numbers.

(I should add: not all of 4e is like this. For example, the campaign arcs sketched in DMG2, the Planes Above and Below, Demonomicon and Underdark do show an awareness that changing tiers means changing the fiction in a way that matters to the play of the game.)

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