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D&D 4E Things I really like about 4e (and how they could be better)


Okay, so I've been rather harsh on 4e lately. And I've also made no bones about the fact that it is my least favourite version of D&D. (That's not to say I think it's not a good game; I just prefer the other versions.)

But 4e does have some very nice features. So, here are a few of the things that I think 4e got very right, together with ways they could be even better. (All IMO, of course.):

Action Points: I'm really not a fan of these as implemented in Eberron/d20 Modern. They're fiddly; they get forgotten too easily; they mess with probabilities (making the formerly impossible possible); because they refresh with each level, they're easy to lose track of; and because there's a whole mess of feats and powers that key off them, they're not easy to just ignore without losing a lot from the setting.

By contrast, the 4e mechanic is simple, it is easy to remember and apply (spend an action point and get an extra... action), it is nicely discrete from the rest of the rules. It just works. So, yeah, I do like that.

How it Could be Better: Give an action point every encounter, to be used in that encounter only (that is, with every short rest you reset to 1 AP). This has a couple of benefits. Firstly, it gives more opportunities for characters to do cool things, which is always good. Secondly, it improves encounter balancing - an encounter where everyone uses all their dailies and action points is much easier than the same encounter without those resources. And it saves tracking of milestones.

Artifacts and Deities: These are fairly peripheral to the game, but they're handled very well in 4e. That deities are considered extremely high level, but can be killed with ultra-high level PCs with just the right gear, and after appropriate questing is just right. And the transient nature of artifacts is also a good thing - these can now appear in campaigns for a time without totally dominating them... unless the DM wants them to.

How it Could be Better: 4e is rather lacking where it comes to magic items. In 4e Classic they're usually deadly dull; in Essentials they're a bit of a hole in the rules. The game would probably benefit from moving many more magic items over to the "artifact" category, and relying on the appropriate mechanisms more.

Class Roles: I wouldn't have been as explicit with these as 4e has been, but it was definitely true of 3e that some classes were a bit of a fifth wheel - it wasn't quite clear what the Bard or Monk were supposed to be doing. (Was the Bard a poor man's rogue? A wizard-lite? A jack-of-all-trades? Was the Monk an unarmoured fighter? A pseudo-Cleric?)

By assigning clear roles, it's easy to see what a class is about. Of course the Bard is a Cleric-replacement! Of course the Monk is a Striker! If we'd had that clarity years ago, the 3.5e PHB could have had 11 really solid classes, instead of having several that people immediately skipped as being "too weak".

How it Could be Better: However, a problem comes about from having four clear roles - one of my groups has only three players, and 4e characters are too complex for them to run multiple characters. If there's a role 'missing', it can be difficult for the party to adjust.

So, this could have been improved a lot either by enabling each class to take on part of another role without either being really bad at it, or losing a lot in their main role, or building in hybrid roles from the outset. (It is likely the hybrid classes rules would have fixed our problems; unfortunately, it was way too late for us by then.)

Powers: Now, I really don't like the uniformity of classes/powers in 4e classic. It all seems way too... neat, I guess. But the division of the powers themselves into At-Will, Encounter and Daily powers was a good move - it's good to clear up the divisions that had always existed, but were never explicit in the same way.

How it Could be Better: Ditch "Dailies". There are three ways I can see for doing this:

- Simply remove them, and replace with per-adventure powers instead.

- Have characters start their day with no 'daily' powers available. Then, after odd-numbered encounters (or just every encounter), have them pick one 'daily' to become active.

- Provide some other recharge mechanism - perhaps there's an action required to ready a 'daily' for use.

Why do this? As long as characters have daily resources, you'll get the 15-minute adventuring day. 4e is a bit better than 3e in this regard (we're up from 5 minutes to 15), but it doesn't go far enough.

(Note: Healing surges aren't on my list here, since I don't particularly care for them, but you'd need a similar fix for them to get rid of the 15 minute day.)

Rituals: Splitting the quick-casting 'combat' spells from the slow-casting 'ritual' spells was definitely a good move. This was always somewhat implicit in the rules, with the 'ritual' spells having much longer casting times and expensive material components, but they still left the wizard who used them down on his regular allocation for the day.

It's a real shame that these too seem to have been lost in the Essentials shuffle.

How it Could be Better: Three things:

- Drop the Ritual Caster feat. Anyone who can meet the prerequisites for a ritual can learn and use it.

- Add rituals for every power source (and 'mundane' rituals as well). There should be a ritual for non-magical healing (expend a "medic's kit", make a Heal check, recipient spends a Healing Surge and gains an extra 1d8 hp (or whatever)). Crafting magic items should be a ritual... but so too should crafting non-magic items. And so on.

- Add rituals with a duration listed as "downtime". These can only be performed between adventures. (Since these are typically not performed 'in game', they shouldn't require a roll - the prerequisites should be such that a character qualifies if he could "make the roll" (equivalent) by taking 10.)

Oh, yes, and add lots more rituals generally!

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I agree with you on rituals and magic items and I think hybrids or a combination of hybrids and themes address the secondary role issue pretty well.

I think per adventure resources are an interesting idea but I think that recharge mechanics can be too fiddly.

I really like the healing surges though.


I really like the healing surges though.

I certainly agree with what they're trying to do, and I agree that it was a problem that should be addressed. (Or at least, was better being addressed than not.)

But the solution they've hit on just seems so... gamey. I don't know how to explain it better than that.

I don't hate healing surges. They certainly work well enough. But I can't help but look at them and think, "That's it? That's the best solution you could come up with?"


American Male (he/him); INTP ADHD Introverted Geek
You have a lot of great ideas there, delericho.

My only real comment would be regarding your thoughts on the Class Roles. Being down a character has always been an issue throughout all versions of the game, since the "roles" have existed implicitly or explicitly in form or another.

Magic items are meh to me too. They have lost their magic from previous gaming era's, ut that was, in some way, one of the main design goals for 4E. In previous editions magic items were a little too definitive of your character and made a much larger difference in game play. Now they aren't required. It is hard to strike and appropriate balance. In my opinion if an item does not have a property it is not really magical - an encounter power is OK, but a daily only... not so magical...

I really like healing surges and how they are implemented, but I do understand that if feels less organic and quite meta-gamey for you.

Good stuff, thanks for posting.


Have you checked out the "martial practices," found in Martial Power 2? They cover mundane item creation, forgery, embalming and some other non-magical activities as "rituals."


First Post
I understand the concern about the 15 minute work day but frankly, as long as PCs have any sort of limited resources, including hit points, this will continue to be an issue. Players are just too protective of their characters (and I don't mean that in a bad way, just that its natural). Heck, the game I was in this past weekend the paladin, after the first encounter, said "Guys, our next encounter is going to have to be our last one. I'm down to 6 surges left." I just shook my head. She hadn't used either of her dailies (or her Inspiring Fortitude). Hadn't used any of her Lay on Hands, either. But, she thought she was getting low on resources because she was down to JUST 6 surges.

Obviously this is a bit of an extreme example, but the sentiment is always going to be there as long as there is any sort of limitation on resources. Unless hit points and powers can be regenerated indefinitely, players will always seek to get their rests in. If resources can be refreshed indefinitely, I think you then eliminate some of the excitement and strategy that comes into play. All in my opinion of course.

I do agree though that magic items don't feel as special any more. Partly this is due to their generally reduced power. Part is due to the sheer volume of items characters are expected to get. I think that using the inherent bonus system can go a long way toward making magic items more interesting again.


I understand the concern about the 15 minute work day but frankly, as long as PCs have any sort of limited resources, including hit points, this will continue to be an issue.

Not necessarily; here are two possible fixes:

1) Split the character's maximum hit points into two pools, a Quick Pool and a Dead Pool. The former represent luck, divine favour, fatigue, and minor nicks and cuts; the latter represents more serious wounds.

When characters take a Short Rest (or uses Second Wind), their Quick Pool refreshes to maximum. Their Dead Pool, however, is a per-adventure resource that cannot be refreshed except in Downtime - no Extended Rests, no magical healing...

(Obviously, this would necessitate some significant changes to the existing healing powers, would affect encounter balance, and so on.)

2) Characters start the adventure with half of their Healing Surges available. Each time they take a Short Rest, they regain 2 Surges, up to their maximum.

Note: You can't take two Short Rests concurrently; you only gain the benefit of a rest if you were in some way fatigued! Also, an Extended Rest gives no benefit beyond that of a Short Rest.

Obviously, both of these would represent a significant change to the game, and the 'cure' might be worse than the 'disease' it's fighting! But, coupled with removing dailies, they would eliminate the 15-minute adventuring day - there wouldn't be any point! :)

I do agree though that magic items don't feel as special any more. Partly this is due to their generally reduced power. Part is due to the sheer volume of items characters are expected to get. I think that using the inherent bonus system can go a long way toward making magic items more interesting again.

Indeed. I was musing on this the other day, and came up with the following:

1) Artifice should be a power source in its own right. Even if the only class using that source is the Artificer!

2) Having done that, I would be inclined to divide items up into four categories: artifice (as above), trinkets, "signature items" and artifacts.

Trinkets are generally low-power, single use items, such as potions (and, in 3e, scrolls and wands). Items that aren't going to change the balance of the game significantly, so can be given out (fairly) freely.

Artifacts are pretty much as in 4e, except that I'd vastly expand the category to include things like the Vorpal Sword.

Artifice should be obvious, being its own power source. Of course, being in some sense "experimental magic", it makes sense that only the Artificer have the knowledge to work it out.

Signature Items are similar in concept to the old Weapons of Legacy - items that are associated with a particular character and grow as he does. (Of course, this could be handled by simply multiclassing into Artificer...) It's perhaps worth noting that this could cover both a specific named item (Aragorn's Anduril), but also "whatever sword I happen to have claimed for this adventure" (as with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser).

These categories obviously leave a lot out - what I would term the "standard items". To a very large extent this is intended. I'm now convinced that the time of +X items has passed, and would also argue that magic items should, by and large, "mean something", a goal which is better served by making them artifacts or signature items.

Of course, the major problem with that: people really like finding magic items in treasure! :)


"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
Healing in any edition of D&D has always been a little wonky, because it's trying to reconcile two opposed design concepts. (Well, more so in 3e and 4e. I don't know if earlier editions cared). There's the simulation aspect of resting to recover strength versus the gamist (and genre emulation) concept of pressing on when the chips are down.

It's hard to argue against resting as an unrealistic simulation. In the real world, we don't do a voluntary activity that's physically demanding without resting first. Rest puts us back at full strength. It's so inherent to the human condition that you can't simply design it out of the game. Rest is mandatory.

If rest is inherently a solid simulation, where is the problem? The problem, of course, is the game aspect. Every edition of D&D (most especially the early versions) is a game of resource management. The goal of the game is gain treasure and experience. To do so, you must expend resources, most commonly your vitality (Hit Points) and magic spells. (Other physical resources like food, water, and supplies were also a consideration in early editions, less so in 3e and 4e). You regain resources by resting. The other consideration is that probability of success increases with the amount of resources available, and the probability of catastrophic failure (i.e. death or other loss of progress, as opposed to not making progress) increases markedly as the amount of resources nears zero.

So, the most rational approach to standard D&D conditions is to rest up completely before any encounter where the probability of success is less than 100%, and the possibility of death is not zero. Hence, 5-min adventuring day.

This is where the genre emulation and gamism come in. The 5-min adventuring day is perfectly rational, but it's boring. Genre heroes don't retreat when bruised. Games where the probabilities are near certain aren't as engaging. So, what incentives can be put into the game to reward fun play over rational, efficient play? (Note that this issue is also a key driver of many MMO mechanics).

Older edtions did this by linking greater progress to pressing on. The better treasure was at the lower levels of the dungeon, so you couldn't progress by simply doing one fight at a time. Resources beyond your personal vitality and spells (such as healing potions and scrolls) were also available to be gained via progression, allowing for gain in resources outside of rest and retreat.

While the gain of resources outside of personal power was tightly controlled by the DM in earlier editions, much of that power was shifted to the players in 3e, by means of a more robust and structured magic item creation system. This allowed for the efficient transfer of treaure into more endurance. Wands of cure light wounds meant that rationally, a loss of hit points had a fixed gold cost. Also, the amount of personal endurance was vastly increased by the greater amount of spells that could be used by the spellcasting classes. Since the increased spell load could also be manipulated to increase effectiveness, with the trade-off of increased endurance (i.e. going nova), the rational approach was still to face as few encounters as possible, but face more challenging ones (since amount of progress had become more explicitly coupled to the amount of challenge provided by an encounter) when possible to allow for the most efficient use of the increased amounts of abilities.

4e provided several solutions, with the aim of pushing towards a low-rest baseline. While earlier editions had incentivized progression (both for its own sake and to provide endurance), 4e sought to minimize resource cost. At-will and encounter powers provided combat novelty while zeroing resource cost. Healing surges provided a secondary vitality resource that minimized probability of catastrophic failure (low HP = high chance of dying, full HP = low chance of dying) while still adding a simulationist pressure of dwindling resources. (After all, there's no point of having resources if they can't be expended).

However, some have argued that 4e didn't go far enough in its design. Low incentive to rest is still some incentive to rest. Daily powers are both flashy and powerful, and their expenditure still represents a diminished probabilty of success and a higher probability of catastrophe. This is perversely encouraged by 4e's encounter design. Since every encounter should occur with the characters at or near full strength, and encounters deplete resources so slowly (due to their decreased cost), every encounter must provide a non-zero chance of catastrophe to provide any meaningful challenge. The best way to prevent catastrophe is the use of your most powerful abilities, which are your daily powers. Since the difficulty of any encounter can be hard to assess in the first few rounds, and the most efficient deployment of any stronger resource is at the beginning on the battle (something explicitly encouraged by dailies with encounter durations), it creates a situations where efficient play is to start off with dailies, and then assess the remaining threat to see if more dailies are necessary.

So, what other options are there? I'd start with decoupling resources from combat effectiveness. I'd say the probability of catastrophe is low enough in the current paradigm that it isn't the major driver of rest. I think healing surges provide a nice simulation of increasing fatigue. (Especially if you the fiction that healing surges are an internal reserve, and hit points represent overall combat readiness. The concept that healing magic makes you tired but fixes wounds is a popular one in fantasy novels. The verisimilitude of second wind and martial healing isn't an issue I want to address, since I'm rather conflicted on it.)

The other way to lower rest is, of course, to increase motivation to not rest. The tried-and-true method is, of course, narrative urgency. (Rescue the princess! Save the kidnapped townsfolk!). This can work in small-to-moderate doses, depending on the character's motivations and the player's willingness to bend to narrative pressure. I would argue, though, for a mechanical rationale for progress. There is already a mechanical incentive to not rest in the game: action points. While action points are strong now, I would argue for them to become an even more integral part of the gameplay process. Tie action point expenditure to cool stuff. Eliminate dailies, and have a class of powers that can only be used via action points. Have methods of action point generation in addition to per encounter, or every other encounter. Using encounter powers should give action points. Burning a healing surge should give action points. Basically, a method where effectiveness increases with resource burn, not decreases. It's the single best way to drive players to act like fantasy heroes should.


Great Old One
Heck, the game I was in this past weekend the paladin, after the first encounter, said "Guys, our next encounter is going to have to be our last one. I'm down to 6 surges left." I just shook my head. She hadn't used either of her dailies (or her Inspiring Fortitude). Hadn't used any of her Lay on Hands, either. But, she thought she was getting low on resources because she was down to JUST 6 surges.
Pfff, Paladins, schmaladins!

In our last gaming session my Half-Orc Brawler Fighter went down into negative hp with no surges left. During the short rest he got some healing from the cleric and woke up at 1 hp. Just as we were ready to explore the old tomb further, a sealed-up wall cracked open and three elite scarab swarms poured into the room. And my fighter was the only character rolling a higher initiative than the monsters.

So he rushed up to the swarms, used an encounter power to mark all three and dared them to try to take him down. Of course he died under a horde of scarabs right after that, but he gave the rest of the party the time they needed.

Paladins and Healing Surges, who needs them anyway?

P.S. I like a lot of your ideas, delricho.


I think Rituals suffered neglect because they were never really directly integrated into any character class. I think maybe every PC needs a "ritual/skill power" slot that fills up like the utility power slot does (Wizards can get extra flexibility just like they do with dailies). Maybe then players will automatically pay attention to them and use them. As rituals are now they seem to be easily forgotten. I think WOTC was trying something a little like this with the Warpriest, but it could probably be generalized.

As for what I like, one thing I like about 4E is the fairly unified attack/defense/skill/passive skill progression. I think it could've gone further: turn proficiencies into "weapon/implement skills" and have training give the same (+3 or so?) bonus across the board. Then you could really have "powers" that involve things like Bluff vs Will or Implement vs passive Insight without the math getting all wonky.

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