What is the essence of 4E?

Saelorn

Adventurer
Hi everyone,

I was having a discussion with someone else on another forum, concerning the topic of Pathfinder 2 (Electric Boogaloo), and a comparison came up between that game and D&D 4E. It was suggested that the two appear quite similar in many ways, because combat is very tactical (Theater-of-the-Mind being neither practical nor encouraged), and every character has a new choice to make at every single level. It was subsequently countered that making a choice at every level, in order to create an extremely customized character, was not considered one of the core defining traits of that edition.

Following that premise, then, what is the core defining trait of 4E? Is it the choices? The grid? The unified resource structure? What do you consider to be the essence of 4E, such that you would recognize a game as being 4E-derived if it shared such an element?
 
As a GM, 4e is:

A high-octane, action-adventure game featuring (1) mythical heroes who each contribute coherently (with respect to their theme/archetype) and meaningfully to conflict-charged scenes and where (2) GMing is frustrationless and rewarding due to the elegance and robustness of the system.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
To me, the essence of 4e is really the structure of character powers, and the universal application of that structure to *all* characters.
 

Riley37

Visitor
To judge by the critics, bottomless hatred.

I would say it was an attempt to make digital play into analog play.
Indeed. As a hater, here's my summary: if you want to play World of Warcraft, but you don't have a computer, then 4E D&D is the closest approximation.

If you want to play Magic the Gathering, but all your friends would rather play a TRPG, then 4E D&D is the compromise.
 
Ok, let me take back what I said above.

The essence of 4e is as the greatest Rorschach Test in RPG history. If you have it in you to be an obsessive and insufferable jilted lover, it may bring that out in you to confront and defeat, or not, at the peril of your present and future relationships.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
Still amazed by just how many people feel the need to bash something a lot of people still enjoy. If you had a post titled “name one good thing about 4e” half the posts would still be complaining. It’s been years, people. There’s no need to be dicks any more; anyone left playing it actually, you know, likes it. Save your bile for US politics.

I’d say the essence of 4e is tactical combat which encourages group tactics and enables players of many types of character to be equally effective.

With other versions of D&D you don’t really need much in the way of tactics. It’s pretty rare that powers interact significantly, but in 4e it is common that when one character levels, they will ask others which leveling choices help them more. Healing, stats effects, attack bonuses, conditions — characters interact way more in combat than in other editions.

I haven’t played enough 5e to know if it addresses the issue, but the level playing field is another big 4e win. In most other systems the difference between a top-tier effective character and a regular guy is huge — in 4e even ‘bad’ classes are a positive help at the table. No LFQM, no dominating builds.

So, in a short phrase: group tactical combat allowing many useful types of combatant.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Core defining trait of 4e. Hrrm. How's this:

Characters are archetypes defined sharply by role and power source to populate a standardized array (AEDU) of primarily combat abilities centered around dynamic and highly tactical group combat system. It attempted detailed mechanical resolution of non-combat processes as well (skill challenges), and was willing to rewrite rules and subsystems that experience showed as containing flaws. Magic item were an integral part of character advancement math.

This is pre-Essentials only. Essentials changed some of those, especially the AEDU framework. While in general Essentials seemed well received by those that liked 4e, it did have different defining traits. If it was just Essentials instead of fully compatible and expected to be played with all the previous, it could have been 4.5e.

EDIT: BTW, I'm saying all of this respectfully. None of this is a jibe or edition wars - but I can see that some may be taken that way. Not my intent.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
With other versions of D&D you don’t really need much in the way of tactics. It’s pretty rare that powers interact significantly, but in 4e it is common that when one character levels, they will ask others which leveling choices help them more.
I've heard this once before, and I had never considered it before then. Do you consider it to be a core aspect of 4E that your character build choices should be made in consideration of what works best for the party?

For all that 3.5 and (especially) Pathfinder allowed for fairly deep and complex character builds, most of them were designed to work in a vacuum. Nobody designed their sword guy under the assumption that someone else would cast haste on them; if haste was essential to the build, then you found some way to cast it on yourself.

When I played 4E, I treated classes and builds as basically interchangeable within each role. A tank is a tank, and whichever moveset appealed to you, you can still perform the tank function and it will be fine. (Some of that might have come from my experience with 3.5 and/or MMOs.) Was this not the case for you? And if not, was it something that became more noticeable as you added more supplements? It occurred to me that party synergy might have become more meaningful as more powers and feats were added, in later books, to the point where it became a cornerstone part of the game; but I'm not familiar enough with those books to really speculate.
 
[MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]

The very first game I ran TPKed the very first fight. This was a game with 1 player who has played since the 70s, one that has played since the 80s and another noob to TTRPGs (but a Chemist and extremely good at puzzle solving and proficient at tactical and strategy games).

They built a group that had absolutely 0 force multiplication and 0 synergy, virtually no control, no ability to Minion Sweep, and limited ability to dig into Healing Surges and rally. The didn’t interact with the environment/stunt for control (which is the primary impetus for Terrain Stunts) either. It was only a level + 2 combat, but it was a massacre.

They learned pretty quickly after that!
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
The very first game I ran TPKed the very first fight. This was a game with 1 player who has played since the 70s, one that has played since the 80s and another noob to TTRPGs (but a Chemist and extremely good at puzzle solving and proficient at tactical and strategy games).

They built a group that had absolutely 0 force multiplication and 0 synergy, virtually no control, no ability to Minion Sweep, and limited ability to dig into Healing Surges and rally. The didn’t interact with the environment/stunt for control (which is the primary impetus for Terrain Stunts) either. It was only a level + 2 combat, but it was a massacre.

They learned pretty quickly after that!
To be fair, you started them out on a level+2 combat. My very first encounter in 4E turned out almost as badly, and I'm pretty sure that it was only level 1. Goblins (or were they kobolds?) are far tougher in 4E than they were in previous editions, and while we did prevail, there was definitely a bit of a learning curve. We didn't intentionally build for synergy, but there were four or five of us, and we made sure to get good coverage across the roles. Isn't the point of party roles that any controller can control well enough, and any leader can heal well enough, if they try?

By any chance, do you recall if the party had good role coverage? And whether they built for or against their roles? I remember one experience with someone building against type, as a great-weapon fighter, and how they weren't very happy with their performance as the sole defender in the party. I can imagine that a group of generalists, skewing toward damage at the expense of their party roles, might easily fall into the same trap.

I'm just trying to understand why that happened for them, and yet I never noticed such an aspect. It could also just be that my DM was inexperienced for 4E, and erred on the side of going easy on us. (If you intended for Terrain Stunts to be a big thing, then that sounds like another way that the players could have succeeded, regardless of their build options.)
 

Riley37

Visitor
in 4e it is common that when one character levels, they will ask others which leveling choices help them more. Healing, stats effects, attack bonuses, conditions — characters interact way more in combat than in other editions.
That strikes me as an important example of edition differences. 4E pushes players towards intentional pursuit of synergy.

Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, could be a pivot point between love for 4E and hatred for 4E. Remember that scene in Lord of the Rings, in which Pippin and Merry discuss which abilities they should learn, as they develop from barely-adult civilians into the heroes who will someday save their hometown? Remember how Elrond chose the Nine Walkers on the basis of rounding out the roles of leader, striker, tank, etc.?
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I've heard this once before, and I had never considered it before then. Do you consider it to be a core aspect of 4E that your character build choices should be made in consideration of what works best for the party?
...
When I played 4E, I treated classes and builds as basically interchangeable within each role. A tank is a tank, and whichever moveset appealed to you, you can still perform the tank function and it will be fine. (Some of that might have come from my experience with 3.5 and/or MMOs.) Was this not the case for you? And if not, was it something that became more noticeable as you added more supplements?
I played quite a lot of 4e and still do sometimes; when playing with other skilled players it is almost certain we'll discuss builds and specific abilities. Examples from my current game are:

* We decided to go no-healer, so most of us made build choices to help heal others
* Our archer is built all-ranged, all-time, so we really feel the loss of an ability to stop movement (fighter marks, e.g.), so the front-line guys took some reactive moves to allow them to block more often
* We have a rogue, so our shaman type gave his summon the ability to give combat advantage, so our thief hybrid didn't need to pick up some feats to make that happen
* Ditto our monk took knock-down abilities to help the thief stick it to prone opponents
* With little healing, our paladin/thief went all-in on the defense paladin abilities.
* We really feel the lack of ability to move opponents around (no bard!) so someone should pick that up soon to help the melee classes
* Lack of healer is OK, but we have few save-granters. Need that!

It's not noticeably related to supplements I don't think. Except of course that more options are possible.
 
To be fair, you started them out on a level+2 combat. My very first encounter in 4E turned out almost as badly, and I'm pretty sure that it was only level 1. Goblins (or were they kobolds?) are far tougher in 4E than they were in previous editions, and while we did prevail, there was definitely a bit of a learning curve. We didn't intentionally build for synergy, but there were four or five of us, and we made sure to get good coverage across the roles. Isn't the point of party roles that any controller can control well enough, and any leader can heal well enough, if they try?

By any chance, do you recall if the party had good role coverage? And whether they built for or against their roles? I remember one experience with someone building against type, as a great-weapon fighter, and how they weren't very happy with their performance as the sole defender in the party. I can imagine that a group of generalists, skewing toward damage at the expense of their party roles, might easily fall into the same trap.

I'm just trying to understand why that happened for them, and yet I never noticed such an aspect. It could also just be that my DM was inexperienced for 4E, and erred on the side of going easy on us. (If you intended for Terrain Stunts to be a big thing, then that sounds like another way that the players could have succeeded, regardless of their build options.)
It was certainly a feeling out process early, but we all adjusted after that.

They had:

1) Pre-Divine Power Chaladin which featured very poor melee control, single target effects, but Lay On Hands for support.

2) A skirmishing Melee/Bow Ranger without Twin Strike, no multi-attacks (just skirmish stuff), but it did have Fox's Cunning immediate Reaction (Encounter).

3) A skirmishing Melee/Bow Rogue w/ no multi-attacks.

They each took multi-class feats (extra Skill + an ability) at 1st level as these were always the best feats in my game. They did well in 3 Skill Challenges prior to combat (losing probably 6 Surges total in the process).

The combat featured multiple Minion Artillery (spread out and protected by terrain features - a few per tree w/ Bees Nests that could be stunted with to AoE the Minions), Grab Grass that would grapple if you fell prone, a Brute that could Prone, and a Controller (Leader) that could Slide + Prone enemies and Slide allies.

The lack of breadth of ability in the portfolio of the above collective and the lack of ability to rally was an eye opener. The next group featured our 1st 1-30 game;

* A legit melee control Fighter that could skirmish and lock down enemies all over the battlefield

* A Twin Strike Ranger who could deploy tons of damage at range and Minion Sweep

* A stout Warlord who could wade into melee, inspire to rally, and force multiply the offense and mobility of the prior two.

They would have curb-stomped the above level +2 combat.
 

Jhaelen

Visitor
While in general Essentials seemed well received by those that liked 4e, it did have different defining traits.
I'm a big fan of 4e, but I didn't care for the Essential classes. I felt it was a mistake to stray from the 'perfect symmetry' of classes they achieved by using the AEDU framework. To me, it felt like the solution to a problem that didn't exist.
An anecdote I always mention in this context is that one player in my group who had never played anything but fighters and paladins in earlier editions suddenly created a Wizard character in 4e and had the time of his life, playing that character. This, to me, was 4e's greatest achievement: All classes were simple enough to be playable by any player.
The very first game I ran TPKed the very first fight.
Well, almost all of my campaigns have started with a TPK. It's a great way to get the players' attention and get them to focus on creating a functioning party.

I don't think there's a single thing that was the essence of 4e. It was a combination of several excellent ideas and the willingness of the designers to slaughter some holy cows to make D&D a better game.

Never before or after have I seen such a great implementation of dynamic, suspenseful tactical combat encounters.

For a DM, especially after being burnt out by the tedium of high-level 3e prep-work with monster stat blocks encompassing several pages and combats slowing down to a crawl, taking hours to resolve a single turn, 4e was a gift from heaven.

The transparency of the underlying math was another high point in RPG design.

And the skill system didn't feel like it was tacked on for the first time in D&D's history. Skill challenges worked well for me, because I never told my players they were participating in one. Instead they were woven seamlessly into normal roleplaying or combat encounters.

4e also marked the end of tracking xp for me: Players simply leveled up whenever it made sense for the story.

I also did away with the nonsense of having new characters start at a lower level and followed the recommendations on retraining.

To me, 4e is and was the greatest achievement in the long history of D&D.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
One of the more overlooked traits of this edition wasn't anything specific in the rules but how the game was presented to the audience through the eyes of game designers. We were constantly treated to behind the scenes looks at why things were being done the way they were, what the design goals were, and how the designers think. It treated the game as just a game, and I think the engine as a whole was better for it. I have always said that this edition was the most honest about what it was, not what it was trying to be. My wife and friends know that if we ever decide to give D&D another try, we will be using 4th edition.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
I'm a big fan of 4e, but I didn't care for the Essential classes. I felt it was a mistake to stray from the 'perfect symmetry' of classes they achieved by using the AEDU framework. To me, it felt like the solution to a problem that didn't exist.
Speaking as someone who liked 4e less than some other implementations, Essentials I think was an experiment to see if the rather strong backlash to 4e (remember this was right after the ICV2 numbers came out stating that Pathfinder was actually selling more than D&D) was in part due to presentation, and Essentials was one of the first projects at the point that Mike Mearls was in full charge of D&D. It still had the same underlying math and assumptions, but tried to present it in a way more similar to what had come before. It may have had quite a few technical improvements, but from a sales standpoint, there were definitely multiple issues that WotC felt the need to address. Not all of them were attributed to system - there were behind-the-scenes mistakes made, bureaucratic nonsense from Hasbro on how to evaluate successful numbers, etc. But there were problems.

What 4e did fantastically well? As you note, it was the first time that “milestone leveling” was officially introduced in D&D; they changed from monsters designed the same way as characters back to simpler design methods, to incorporating a strong math-based component that synced with character capability by level; they encouraged party cohesion sheerly by class design, something that had been increasingly dropped from OD&D onward throughout the editions, and which players were starting to completely discard in 3rd Edition. To me, D&D is a much better game when you worry less about being the independent MVP via a super-optimized build, and focus more on doing a role well and synergizing with the other characters in your group. My basketball knowledge is probably inadequate here, but to use an analogy, Characters who are less Dennis Rodmans, and more Wilt Chamberlains/John Stocktons.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I'm a big fan of 4e, but I didn't care for the Essential classes. I felt it was a mistake to stray from the 'perfect symmetry' of classes they achieved by using the AEDU framework. To me, it felt like the solution to a problem that didn't exist.
From two tables I played at where we got into the mid-teens to low 20s, it really helped with the option paralysis of Paragon+ characters. In my experience some players worked well and some players took a long time with a bunch of thematically linked by fiercely individual powers in terms of how they affected the fight dynamic and range/area which needed to be evaluated every turn.

But I was more discussing the tone of Essentials which seemed generally positive to pro-4e players both in the groups I played (which included my FLGS) and on the boards. Not saying it was a good fit for everyone.
 

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