Ask Angry Soloblitz: Reflecting on D&D 4E

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Here’s the deal. I was originally going to do another Ask Angry Superblitz this week because I still have a huge number of questions. But this question – which I found in the pile – was such an interesting question and there was so much to it, that I ended up blowing a huge number of words on it. It’s a question that A LOT of people have asked me over the last few years. So, I figured now is a good time to say the final word on it.

Coming up in the next month, I’m going to keep doing a few Ask Angry Blitzes to clear the questions, but I will alternate between those and other feature articles. So, also this month, expect to see a neat article about how to create NPCs for your game and something else that I’ll disclose later. I assure you they will both be plenty meaty. But expect me to continue to work through the Ask Angry Backlog as well until I can get caught up to the point where I can do Ask Angry as a standalone article every week again.


Peter der Verräter (Among Many Others) asks:

Now that a bit of time has passed, are there any parts or aspects of D&D 4E that you appreciate or even miss more than when you actively played the system? And what things are you glad to have left behind? Are those the reasons you quit the system in the first place for?

I guess, since it’s been eight years since we met and around five years since we broke up, I can finally talk about the ex. And I think the best way to describe my personal feelings toward 4E was to quote one of my favorite YouTube video series: Ross’ Game Dungeon. In his episode Test Drive 3, he described the game as “such a mixed bag. If it were a literal bag that you could stick your hand in, it would be filled with gold nuggets and snapping turtles.” And that’s kind of how I feel about 4th Edition. The whole game was an emotional roller coaster for me. It was like the f$&%ing Pixar movie of D&D editions. Or it would be, if I was capable of human emotions and actually cried over movies with cartoon fish or any bulls$&% like that. But I don’t. Because I’m a man’s man and I only watch movies with topless lesbians riding motorcylces that are on fire while shooting guns at each other. And I drink beer. Yeah.


There was actually a lot that I loved about the game. If you’ve been reading my website (and this would be a weird place to start if you haven’t), you know that I too am a very complicated mixed bag. I have a lot of snapping turtles in me, but I also crap out a lot of gold nuggets. I love action gameplay and combat, but I also love engaging stories, emotional connections, and all that crap. Half the s$&% I write on this website is a study in story structure for the modern gaming. The other half is digging deep into numbers minutiae. And that’s because I’m actually about the game experience AS A WHOLE. It isn’t just story, it isn’t just gameplay, it’s BOTH. And how each shores up the other.

D&D 4E thought long and hard about the gameplay experience. And that is something I greatly appreciated. I followed all of the development of 4E. I consumed every podcast, interview, preview book, article, everything I could. And the designers talked a lot more about their design philosophy than they ever had before. And, frankly, they’ve never talked about it that much since.

And that was, to me, the great strength of 4E. There was a very clear and solid design philosophy behind absolutely every game element. Classes were designed not just based on tropes and archetypes, but actually around what they would accomplish in the game. Recognizing that most D&D games are action oriented, the designers sat down and tried to come up with a way to design classes to ensure interesting ways to participate in combat. And also how to differentiate them in terms of story. And that is how we ended up with Power Sources and Roles. And they kept refining that system. So, eventually, you could look at each class in terms of its primary Role and a couple of optional secondary roles that flavored how the class accomplished its primary role. The Paladin, for example, was a Defender, but he was a Leadery Defender. As opposed to the Fighter, who could be a Controllery Defender or a Strikery Defender.

That’s great because, in the past, we’d run into a lot of problems with classes that could do absolutely everything, classes that were highly specialized, and classes that basically did lots of things poorly. The idea of defining combat roles helped prevent a lot of those problems. But it meant accepting that D&D does have combat at its core. And it does.

Now, a lot of folks saw that focus on classes as combat roles and assumed that, if they liked D&D for reasons other than the combat, the game was somehow lacking. And, to some extent, I don’t feel that’s entirely unfair. But I also don’t think it’s completely fair. Most of the noncombat portions of the game really only live in a couple of spaces. First, there’s the skill system. And the designers streamlined the skill system. And that looked bad because you lost a lot of skills that added some character and background to the PC. They were, what I call, “nice to have” skills. Perform, as a skill, is a nice skill for your character to have. But it’s not a skill that is really worth game resources unless you power specific mechanics with it. In 3.5, you can use it to power Bardic Magic, or you can use it to make a pitiful amount of coin, or you can use it to give a performance to solve a particular problem. Now, that last use is highly specialized. The number of problems that can be solved with a good performance is far fewer than the number of problems that can be solved with, say, athletics. Or even persuasion. No one ever used it to make money after first level unless they were bored or looking for something to do in town. So that left it as “the skill that powers certain bard magic.” And that was kind of silly. Because you forced Bards to waste skill points JUST to power a class ability. So, Perform wasn’t doing a good job.

People liked the skill though, because it allowed them to say something about the background of the character. The WotC argument is “it doesn’t NEED a game effect to be something you can do. Just make your character a Performer.” What they missed was that people wanted a game effect, however negligible, so that it felt like the fact that they were a performer changed the way they interacted with the world.

We can make a similar argument for the Craft skills, Profession skills, and certain other skills that disappeared. They all fall into that class of “it’s nice to have the option, but it rarely gets used.”

The shame of it is that D&D 4E probably would have lent itself to an amazing crafting system, one that was streamlined and actually useful. In fact, they did try. Residuum and magic item components were really interesting. But they didn’t feel fully realized.

So, it LOOKED like the game was focusing on combat and sacrificing story elements. A fair few, but a gross oversimplification of what was really going on under the hood.

The same thing – by the way – happened on the other side of the screen too. Monster design became centered around the idea of building combat teams rather than single monsters. Which was a really smart move, because solo monsters are the least interesting combats in D&D. They are static and they tend to drop into a sort of “tank and spank” mentality. And what’s funny is that, for all the accusations that 4E was an MMO on paper, they worked really hard to get AWAY from the the “tank, DPS, heal” system. D&D had really INVENTED that tactical setup. WoW just refined it and encoded it. And 4E wanted to grow beyond it. That’s why healing was something everyone could do, at least in limited amounts, and why healing resources (surges) were spread out through the party instead of just piled on the cleric. That way, the cleric wasn’t expending his own resources to heal. The target of healing paid for the healing. Really smart. Because it got the cleric out of being “just a first aid kit.” At least, that’s what it TRIED to do.

I loved the idea of monster roles and varying stats and powers based on what the monster was supposed to do in combat. I loved the fact that monsters were so varied. I love the fact that I had different types of goblins with different strategies I could mix and match. It was great because, finally, you could build an INTERESTING goblin dungeon fairly easily. Sure, in 3.5, you could change equipment and feats and slap classes on the goblins, but that took a lot of work. Giving me three to five goblins was a lot cooler. A lot more useful. Especially because you told me exactly how they were supposed to work and what to do with them.

More to the point, the powers system – that is, the idea that every combat action was a power with a specific name and set of mechanics – was actually more subtly useful than people realized. If you give a goblin a lockdown power and a high AC, all the GM has to do is use those powers. The GM just has to play the goblin as if the goblin wants to win the fight and the goblins tactics will naturally emerge. That goblin will glue down a high-damage character and deflect the attacks. It was a really great design choice. At least, for monsters. Because that’s where the system really started weighing on me.

I hate spells.

Most people, when they piss and moan about the magic system in D&D, they hate the Vancian, limited resource approach. Me? I can handle that. What I hate is the fact that wizards and clerics and all the other spell casters have to manage these gigantic lists of very specific and often overly detailed chunks of mechanics that define specific tricks they can do. It’s a major source of gameplay lag. Because there are too many spells to remember all of the mechanics and all of the corner cases. And it’s a shame because, if you taught the GM how to manage the game properly, most spells and skills could be spelled out in natural language. And many spells don’t need to be limited resources anyway. Which is what cantrips figured out.

Every class in D&D became a spellcaster. Not in terms of resource management (although we’ll come back to that), but in terms of the fact that every class had a list of specific chunks of game mechanics that defined special tricks they could do that needed to be referenced constantly through the game.

I hated that. Because it led to a lot of slowdown. People blame “analysis paralysis” for the slowdown in D&D 4E, but that wasn’t really what it was. It was just parsing time. It was the time it took to remind yourself of what powers you had and what each did every time.

I also hate arbitrarily limited resources.

Most people, when they piss and moan about limited resources, they hate Vancian magic. The idea of “fire-and-literally-forget” spells. Me, I’ve never had a problem with Vanican magic. In fact, magic is the one place I sort of accept the whole limited resource deal. It’s magic. It could work that way.

I’ll be quite honest, the magic item system in 3.5 made a hell of a lot of sense if you viewed it as a technological invention created by spellcasters desperately trying to subvert the laws of magic that limited the spells they could crank out.

In D&D 3.5, there were three types of magical items: spell completion, spell trigger, and use activated. Use activated items are all the normal sorts of enchanted swords and bracers and pants and jars and crap. But the spell completion and spell trigger were basically different ways of containing spells so they didn’t eat up a wizard’s resources. Scrolls, wands, staffs, potions, and so on. They only existed because the spellcasters needed a way to extend their resources. That was pretty cool. And if you dug into the logic of the magic item system, it made sense in the world.

But what always bothered me was s$&% that was not ostensibly magical but still had weird arbitrary limitations. Flying into a berserker rage X number of times a day. That one always sort of bugged me. Because it is utterly arbitrary. It’s there purely as a gameplay feature, to limit a powerful resource. Fine. But barbarian rage can’t be dispelled or cancelled in an anti-magic field. That makes it purely mundane. And therefore, the exact number limitation is strange as hell.

Instead of a limitation on the number of uses, you can create a cost or consequence or risk that offsets the benefit. Like, you can go into a rage but you take these penalties. Or you become exhausted. Or something. Or you have to make a Fortitude save each round to stay in the rage and not become exhausted and suffer penalties until you can rest. Those would be interesting mechanics that would also serve the story.

4E limited pretty much every neat thing that every class could do with arbitrary cooldowns. And they unapologetically said they got the idea from World of Warcraft. And there’s nothing wrong with taking a good idea from another game and adapting it. But cooldowns are a patch. They are a bandaid. They fix a problem of a specific medium. In this case, they are part of a very complex design that was created to deal with the fact that combat over MMOs involves a certain amount of lag. That is to say, when you swing your sword on your computer, that signal has to go to the WoW servers to calculate the result, and then get spread across all the users you’re interacting with. And that takes time. Enough time that, in the time between you swinging the sword and that signal getting calculated and spread out everywhere, things can change. Cooldowns are one part of a very complicated system of creating what is essentially a turn-based combat engine that runs in real time. So I question whether they belong in D&D.

The thing is, between the spell lists for every class and the arbitrary resource limits created by the cooldown system, my favorite parts of the game (the action combat) kept rubbing me the wrong way. The way the system was designed, I should have loved it. But the specific execution was doing things I only tolerated in prior editions. Constantly.

But, let’s talk about the story aspects of D&D 4E. Because that was another aspect I really loved. There was a very richly defined world in D&D 4E – in the CORE PRODUCTS – unlike any other default D&D world. Most editions of D&D take the “everything fantasy and the kitchen sink” approach and they treat all canon as equal.

That is to say, there are no REAL rules for undeath in the DEFAULT world of 3.5. World rules. There’s no explanation. Or rather, there’s hundreds of explanations. Every specific undead creature rises or gets created or whatever for its own reasons written into its lore entries. In D&D 4E, though, there’s some very specific rules and ideas that were decided pretty early on. If you look back in the preview book Worlds and Monsters, which was basically just a bunch of design essays about 4E, you’ll see that they had come up with this idea of “body, soul, and animus” that explained the different kinds of undead and why they existed. And, while it wasn’t really spelled out until the Open Grave supplement, all the core undead monsters (and necromantic) fit together consistently. You could piece together some of the rules if you really wanted to.

Demons and devils had specific origins that informed how they worked. Demons were elemental beings, corrupted by a seed of pure evil to become purely destructive. Devils were the servants of a dead god, mysteriously forgotten, who followed the rebellious angel Asmodeus. Of course, humanity lacks a creator god, but is very prone to corruption by Asmodeus, as we see in the origin of the tiefling race. So, which god got killed by Asmodeus? Was it maybe the patron of humanity? And are humans prone to corruption because that god was a god of ambition whose angels themselves got a little too ambitious?

There are hints of ancient wizarding orders and tactical schools sprinkled throughout the rules, details that implied a backstory that never fully got shared. And that was to its credit. Because a creative, world-building GM could take those hooks and fill in the backstory their own way. Those details were all consistent with SOMETHING, but we didn’t know what. But whatever we filled in the blanks with, it would create a consistently detailed world.

The idea of a world with a backstory and an origin story and very specific details is nothing new. But the idea of only sharing bits and pieces of the backstory to create blanks in the world so the GM can create a consistent backstory, I think that’s brilliant. I’m not sure if that’s what they intended. I think they only wanted to make sure the details of the game were consistent NOT JUST mechanically BUT ALSO thematically. But it became a sort of lore treasure hunt. It rewarded buying all the books because each offered more glimpses of the true story of the world.

In fact, I got SO ATTACHED to my own answer to all of those questions about the backstory of the world that, for the first time, I used the default D&D setting exclusively and built up my own lore around it. In fact, that’s the world I STILL run my games in. My current D&D game is set in the same world that I built out of the 4E lore.

Compared to that – and I hate to say this – 5E feels really soulless. In terms of world lore built into the core of the game, 5E is sparser than 3E. There’s no real sense of world in the books beyond what is required to describe characters. That is, we know what the races and classes are. And that’s it. There aren’t even gods in the book. Just a spreadsheet in the appendix. How sad.

What do I love about 4E? First of all, I love its bravery. It wasn’t afraid to take risks and to do different things. It wasn’t afraid to break away from what D&D had become if there was a better way to do things. In fact, the first drafts of the design were unrecognizable as D&D. The team went back to the drawing board because they felt, in their zealousness to rethink things, they felt they had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I love innovation for the right reasons. And I truly think D&D 4E was innovating for the right reasons. The fact that they were willing to go too far and then pull back shows that.

Second of all, I love that the design was purpose driven and that everything was created based around how it would be used in the game and how it would interact with everything. I love that they seemed to think about what the game elements actually meant: what is a class, what is a race, what is a monster, and so on.

Third of all, I love that they set out from the beginning to build a world that matched the game. The fact that the world of D&D 4E and the game of D&D 4E were so inextricably connected is proven by what happened to the Forgotten Realms. They literally had to crash planets together, kill gods, burn down the world, and wait a hundred years to get the game of 4E to fit the world of Forgotten Realms. And that’s because the game and the world of 4E were tied together very tightly.

In fact, it broke my heart to STOP playing 4E because specific elements of execution didn’t work for me. And honestly, when the Essentials line hit and they revamped things a bit in terms of class design, I was ready to give the whole system another go. But, by then, like so many people, I’d invested so much in other games, I wasn’t willing to return. I only checked out Essentials later on and I really like what they did.

What I would have liked to see was for D&D 4E to start a new evolution of D&D. Yeah, it had problems, yes it didn’t work. But rather than sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn’t exist, I would have loved for the core principles they used to become the foundation for the next edition. D&D 5E, as good as it is, is a disappointment to me. It represents a step backwards in terms of RPG evolution. It’s a whoopsie, it’s do-over, it’s a retcon, and it’s basically trading on nostalgia. And I think it’s too married to pleasing people like me, the aging community of gamers. It reminds me of the argument MatPat made in his Game Theory episode about Gamers Killing Video Games.

As much as we – the alpha gamers – want to believe that 4E was a flop, it actually wasn’t. Not completely. You have to listen very closely and pay very careful attention to get any sense of how things are going inside WotC because they play things very close to the vest. But 4E didn’t flop. It grew the community. It didn’t resonate as much with ESTABLISHED D&D fans, but it did pretty well with newer and younger players. The problem is that D&D relies too heavily on established fans marketing the game for them. So, if you alienate the established fans, you lose your gateway for the new fans to get into the product. And I think Essentials was SUPPOSED to be the solution for that problem. But it didn’t.

Some of that is speculation, some comes from information and conversations I can’t really talk about. But what IS interesting is a conversation that Mike Mearls had with me, publicly, on Twitter when 5E was still just a twinkle in WotC’s eye and the open playtest hadn’t even started. He told me that he (and the folks at WotC) didn’t care about me so much with 5E. They wanted all the NEW gamers. He didn’t say it in a dick way. It just came naturally of the conversation we were having. But he said, basically, 5E was going to reach out the new gamers and forgo the established gamers.

Isn’t it interesting that, two years later, we got a 5E that is essentially a nostalgia grab. A big ole love letter to the “best of every previous edition” and one that mostly ignores 4E.

I love D&D 4E for its attempt to innovate, for its courage, and for a really well-developed core design philosophy. I don’t fault the slip-ups that prevented me from loving playing and running the game because I can see where they came from. Because I have to respect that. Innovation is a risky endeavor.

MatPat of Game Theory argues that maybe gamers don’t want innovation and their actions prove it. And I think that’s an overly cynical answer. And for me to call someone else overly cynical takes a lot. Because I don’t exactly have the high ground.

The problem with innovation is that people don’t know what they want – what they’ll like – until you put it in front of them. You can ask people whether they’d like this or that or the other, but people are really bad at predicting what they will like. The reason the “same ole thing” tends to do well is because it survived precisely BECAUSE it was what people liked. But every “same ole thing” was new, once upon a time. People who are very nostalgic for D&D 3.5 don’t realize that 3.5 was the “new, shiny, innovative thing” 16 years ago. Now, d20 is a standard; d20 is the “same ole thing.”

Innovation is the bravery to try new things in the hopes that you will hit a magical combination of elements that most people LIKE when you put it in front of them. But the sad truth is that, for every really great new idea, a hundred crappy ideas die because they just don’t work for most people. And that’s precisely how it works. You can make a “same ole thing” and make modest bucks and sell to the same audience you’ve already been selling to. And when everyone else also makes the “same ole thing,” you’re all fighting for the same audience and that’ll keep the rewards low. Low risk, low reward.

If you invent the next great thing, though, people will flock to you. You’re the only one doing it. And it’ll take years for people to start imitating you well enough for you to become the “same ole thing.” Like it or hate it, the Nintendo Wii had a very strong early life precisely because it created a whole new market for casual family games. And it raked in the bucks. Eventually, the profits slowed as always happens and Nintendo tried to make the same lightning strike with the WiiU. Do something new and interesting and innovative. And that flopped.

I would love to know what the next iteration of D&D 4E would have been. I would love to know where it would have gone next. And I know some people will point at 13th Age and say “there.” Well, I don’t have time to tell you why you’re wrong. I’ve broken 4,000 words already. But, no. 13th Age is NOT the evolution of 4E. It’s an okay game, but it isn’t D&D. And it certainly isn’t a continuation of what D&D 4E did.

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74 thoughts on “Ask Angry Soloblitz: Reflecting on D&D 4E

  1. This hits pretty close to my opinion of 4E, only I’m not really bothered by the “cooldown” thing, so very little about 4E rubbed me the wrong way.

    I also met a bunch of people who got into RPGs because of 4E.

    I also think 3.5finder is a hot mess though, so… different strokes.

    • At some point I’d love to read another 4000 words about your thoughts on 13th Age. You know, if you ever don’t have something else you’d rather write about.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with this. I know most people don’t come to this blog for advice about 13th Age, but it is the system I’ve had the most success with running, and I’d love to hear Angry’s thoughts on it. I do agree that it is definitely ‘not D&D’, but I’m not so sure that’s always a bad thing.

      • As would I. I’ve yet to run it, but it seems D&Dish to me. Of course, I came in with 4e, so I assume my opinion is suspect.

    • Feel the same way! The cooldown thing doesn’t feel organic, it feels very game-y, and this actually makes me like it more! Because it forces my players to make a choice every single round of combat: at-will, encounter, or daily. “Do I play it safe with my at-will, or do I use my encounter power to really do some damage?” or “It’s only noon in game-time: do I use my daily now, or wait until later when I might really need it?” Sure, there’s no story-reason why it should work this way, but I also don’t feel there needs to be, because the most important aspect of D&D is fun, and this choice makes the game more fun.

      As for the crafting system, I’m sure there’s a sourcebook, but I house-ruled my own crafting system and use Thievery checks for mundane Craft checks, Arcana for magical Craft checks. Professions are covered by Backgrounds (if you want a profession, either pick it as your background, or wait to develop it in-game). And Perform is FINALLY relegated to where it belongs: RP. You want to perform? Perform, and let the DM figure out it’s in-game effects. Not everything needs to be math’d out!

  2. It’s great to hear of your experiences with 4E! I remember being so excited to play it. Ran one session, and it kind of fell flat with the room however. Perhaps that was my fault. We had just come off of years of playing games in the Robin D Laws frame of mind, so perhaps it was too big of a leap to become so map dependant… Oddly enough, we went way back to classic Rules Cyclopedia d&d after that, and I’ve been running that ever since . As a PC in 5E, I agree with you. I absolutely love the edition, but it has a certain hollowness to it. Sure a good dm can really work in all that open space but you definitely feel those gaps in the lore and framework of the game.

  3. I know you said you didn’t have time here, but I’d love to hear your general thoughts on 13th Age, because while I don’t think it’s a direct evolution of 4E, I do believe it combines some things I liked about both 3 and 4E while also adding some new stuff that I like.

    I’m going to be switching from 5E to 13th Age for the next game I GM, just because 5E’s encounter design is so cumbersome that it takes me a ton more prep time than it should just to make fun and challenging encounters that satisfy my table.

    Just the fact that 13A didn’t forget about 4E’s great monster roles/encounter building is enough to get me on its side.

    • Take a look at the kobold fight club (not sure if Angry likes links in his comments, so I won’t put one. It’s easy to find on google). It makes the math for designing an encounter for a specific level group super easy. Granted, you’ll still have to have a good understanding of how the actual mechanics of the creatures will work together and such, but it’s a super useful start.

  4. I’m one of those players who got there start with 4E, and I am doing my best to bring new people into the hobby.

    My biggest problems with 4E, as a player because I never ran it, are that you needed a subscription to a character creator in order to make a character in any reasonable amount of time, and the useless feats left over from 3.5 (basically anything besides power attack for melee characters)

    • Ah, thanks for reminding me that I lost my copy of the off-line character builder when my last PC crashed. 🙁

    • Shared subscription! You can have 16 characters for each subscription, and I believe an unlimited number of custom monsters (somebody please correct me if there’s a cap I haven’t hit yet.)

  5. People like to complain about 4e and claim it killed D&D (or almost killed or whatever)… but it obviously didn’t. 4e had a HUGE following. People claim Pathfinder completely defeated 4e in sales, but, as I understand it, the 4e sales were actually comparable to (probably a bit less than, but still comparable to) Pathfinder’s. Lots of confirmation bias there -of course 4e is bad! Look at its sales! Of course its sales were bad! Look at how bad the game is! Etc.

    The biggest thing I really want from 4e is the huge amount of customization you can make. A 5e fighter gets like 5 choices as he levels, and most of them don’t actually affect the things he can actively do. A 4e fighter gets a choice at every level, so a defendery fighter ends up substantially different than a strikery fighter, which is also different than a controllery fighter. 5e does have those variations as well, but the differences are substantially more limited.

    On the other hand, 4e had a huge issue with ivory tower builds. There were hundreds of abilities available (through all the player option books, etc.) but only maybe a couple dozen were worth picking up. Especially annoying to me is that a lot of the abilities were basically “this other ability, but it also does THIS!” Poor implementation of a really neat design idea.

    Anyway, those’re much of my thoughts on 4e. I’m pretty curious what other people think.

    • That’s kind of why I just can’t get into 5e myself. There’s just nothing you can do to personalize a character build. As someone who enjoys the strategic combat game part of D&D as well the story/RP parts (blasphemous in some circles), 5e had almost nothing to offer.

      I was going to join a game, and I figured I might roll up a Sorcerer. I checked my rulebook on what Sorcerers could do in 5e and thought to myself “Oh, that’s a shame…” When there are only two bloodlines, there really isn’t much of a reason to even keep that as a feature. Just call it opting into or out of Wild Magic like it really is.

      I rolled a Life Cleric instead. Just a Life Cleric, because in 5e that’s the entirety of a build.

      • Eh… that’s not the *entirety* of a life cleric build. There are spells, feats, and ability score increases too… but yeah, “life cleric” is most of the build.

        The “the whole build is just picking a class” idea is less accurate for wizards and sorcerers, about equally accurate for bards and barbarians, and substantially more accurate for fighters. I really like that there’s a difference in complexity – people who like complex characters and choices can play wizards, and people who like simple things can play fighters, etc., but… they took it a bit too far.

        I still really like 5e. I like it a lot. I just dislike that particular aspect of it.

        • I would be ok with having differently complex classes in all achetypes. So that my player that really love magic stuff, but is awful in controlling spell slots and such could play the equivalent of 4e Elementalist, and have his “simple spellcaster” with the mechanical equivalent of the “I attack in my turn” of the simple fighter.

          Or you could make the BARBARIAN the “simple fighter”: Combat start, rage and attack. The actual Fighter class would be more nuanced with maneuvers and combos. Do the same duality with Sorcerer/Wizard, and you have the two most popular general archetypes covered, and can have everything else at the middle of the road.

      • I was just having this conversation with one of my players regarding the same complaint. He complained about clerics having literally one choice to make. When I pointed out that each iteration of the “same character” would make different choices as far as spell preparation and equipment and how they’d approach a situation, his response was, “Yeah, but… the other character COULD acquire that equipment and prepare those spells and take the same approaches .”

        I came to the realization that for players like him (and you), the mechanical differences are hugely important. It’s not that he wants two characters to be different because they MAKE different choices, it’s that he wants them to be different because they HAVE different choices. He doesn’t want them to have the option of doing the same thing in the same way.

        There’s nothing wrong with having that preference; it makes me think he falls firmly into the Expression category of the Eight Kinds of Fun. And in such a way that for him, expressing his character mechanically is even more important than through gameplay.

        When we play 5E, he’s always the last to choose his class, because he needs to be as different from the others as possible. And as the DM, I try to give him opportunities to showcase his special snowflake superpowers.

        • Eh, I don’t generally need to differentiate myself. I’m actually one of those weird people who usually plays a Human unless the character needs to be another race to make sense, when I stoop so low as to be a player at least. Overdesigning is a terrible thing.

          I think it comes down to a couple things. Firstly, I enjoy the theorycrafting side of the game. Back when I played WoW, I was constantly on forums discussing the numbers and strategies, and sharing spreadsheets and graphs I made with other people. Working through the numbers and effects with a clear goal, finding the synergies and weighing them against each other, and then going forth and using your studied mastery to great effect in-game. I love that crap, and 5e offers none of it.

          And secondly, it kind of breaks my method of character creation. Usually I build the character mechanics first, personality second. It frees me to pursue whatever playstyle I feel like playing, and I find it far easier to form a character based on “Hmm what kind of person would do this, and choose that?” than to form a character from a blank page. 5e mechanics are so shallow though, and offer so few choices, that I have nothing to work with. The mechanics don’t naturally lead to any storytelling, the personality has to be shoehorned in after the fact. And that just doesn’t jive with me.

        • That can explain a lot, I reckon. I’m old school. My response to 3E, when it appeared: “It’s all munchkin.” I’ve played a great many characters of many classes using 1E, and each of any given class was different from the others of that class based on personality and the character choices that grew out of that. So each cleric was different based on choices in armor, weapons, spells, due to having a different personality.

          The addition of feats and all that sort of thing left me cold then and leaves me cold now. I’ve no stomach for all of that stuff.

  6. Nice article that sums up my thoughts regarding 4e.

    I find the bit on nostalgia interesting, because it extends beyond gaming right now. American super-hero comics as filtered by Marvel and DC have variously alternated in story stunts and publication line restructurings that are geared primarily toward holding onto an aging purchaser base while giving comparatively little effort toward growing that same purchaser base. Marvel is a bit better at trying to attract new readers who might be inclined to pick up a comic after seeing one of their films, but DC frequently doubles-down on that aging purchaser base by promoting nostalgia-driven stories and interpretations of their characters over stories and interpretations that have more success on any of their film ventures. This is frequently compounded by the folks being hired to write and create comics being the folks who grew up on what they view as the “right” version of a particular character, leading to a series of cycles where the two companies tentatively try something new with a title, alienate their hardcore purchaser base, and immediately retract that new idea by shuffling the comics over to creative teams they know that hardcore purchaser base will react positively to because they share the same nostalgia.

    Much like with comics, I think gaming – both video and tabletop – have the best success in breaking out of that cycle of nostalgia fueled creation when you look beyond what the broader public view as the definition of that hobby. Americans view “comics” as either newspaper comic strips (which haven’t evolved in noticeable ways for decades” or Marvel and DC super hero comics, which end up in the aforementioned nostalgia trap. At the same time, you have a vibrant indie community online and in print that attract a lot of readers who probably don’t consciously think of the webcomic or Hellboy comic book they’re reading as being a “comic” in the same way they do an issue of Spider-Man or Batman. Same for gaming – if you asked someone who played the heck out of a mobile game like Candy Crush if they were a gamer, they’d say no because they don’t play a Call of Duty or a Zelda. And if you asked someone who identified as a gamer whether that Candy Crush fan was a “gamer” they very likely would get dismissive.

    Hmm… I think I lost my point somewhere in there. Either way, great article! Glad to see a break-down of the good and bad of 4e when most folks just focus on the bad.

  7. I suppose that I could ramble on at least 1000 words about my love for 4E, but I’ll keep this relatively short. I am still running 4E and I intend to continue running 4E for all of my campaigns until I no longer have any players that want to play 4E. I think that Angry touched on pretty much all of the things that I love about 4E. And he also touched on what leaves me flat on 5e. I’ve played D&D since 1981 (BECMI, 1e, 2e, 3.x, and 4E). And, as was said, when 5e came out, it just felt like a “throwback” to previous editions. I actually had a conversation with a friend who claimed that 4E “really wasn’t an RPG” and pointed out several differences between 3.x and 4E to “prove” his point. Well, needless to say, I told him that if he wanted to see how 4E was a great RPG, he needed to sit at my table. He didn’t get the chance to do that, but I’ve had a couple of other friends who were uncertain about 4E and became convinced that 4E was a good system, simply because they gave it a “fair shake” and saw that it really did a lot of cool things. And now that I have reliable offline tools for building characters and searching a compendium-like list of 4E stuff, I’m really set for a long time (I just have to keep a Windows 7 machine running).

    I’m happy to see that D&D is continuing to develop new products and “sticking around” for an old guy like me. And I will NEVER begrudge anyone to play whatever edition they want to. That’s the great thing about games, there’s room for all of them. I’ll just keep play my beloved 4E until such time as I don’t have any players.

    Thanks for the great article, Angry!

    • When 4e first came out, I was one of those “loyalists” who just couldn’t accept it. For me, the biggest thing (not touched on here) was the upfront cost. I hate new editions sometimes, because it means the edition I’ve been playing goes out of print, and then it becomes harder for me to get the books I want. ALSO, I’ve always struggled to stay current. And having THREE player’s handbooks and DMGs felt like a shakedown.

      But then I fell in love.

      Because we had a DM who decided to really give the system a try. And for years, before I joined the table, he ran hit-or-miss sessions. But then he *really* read the books and discovered how to unlock the secret.

      A badly run 4e session is worse than a badly run 3.5 session because the rules in 4e are more concrete in 4e than in any other edition. But you can’t crack open rulebooks during combat! (You can, but… don’t.) However, a well-run 4e session is immensely cathartic. Because my players viscerally connect to every. single. kill.

      We have a house-rule, for example, that if you attack a monster from stealth, you can treat that monster as one grade lower than what it is. So, for example, if you attack a Standard monster with an Attack from Stealth, you treat it as a Minion… and if you attack a Minion from Stealth, you can insta-kill it with a Stealth roll without rolling an Attack as a free action. This isn’t even possible in other editions! They don’t have Monster grades.

      And this doesn’t even touch on D&D Insider and the ease of the Monster Builder for scaling encounters. Want to use a 12th-level monster against a 4th-level party? It will take you literally ten seconds to scale it down! And then you just invent a reason- for example, I’m doing exactly, and I’m explaining the monsters’ weakness relative to its peers’ as it being a “runt of the litter.”

      • I suspect you’d need to play the early editions with experienced GMs before claiming things 4E does that earlier editions couldn’t. The instakill from stealth actually cropped up regularly in some campaigns using 1E–without need of any monster grades. Monsters could be scaled on the fly without blinking. You didn’t describe anything that didn’t appear in old school play.

        • All I know is, you can’t scale 5e, 3e/3.5e, or 2e, as easily or quickly as you can 4e. I know you can, but 4e makes it easier.

          As for the kill from stealth, I’m just giving one example of how you can use skills to fill in the crucial RP element that 4e is often
          accused of lacking.

    • Thank you! I am also still running 4e, I’ve been playing since ’83. I love the game and also intend to run it until my players leave me or maybe we get through a end game campaign through the 20th level.
      Great game, I miss it and hope players rediscover what a solid system it really was.

  8. I think you went the nostalgic road. It was nice to see you talk about the positive aspects of 4E, But I think you overlooked some things.

    Allow me to make a call to your previous article, the Megadungeon one. You talked about the two types of players: the Player-player and the GM-player. Having played the game from both sides of the screen, I believe that 4E was the BEST system for the GM-player. The monster rules were simple (you didn’t had to know ALL THE FEATS, for a change), the XP and encounter-building rules were easy to understand, the roles of monsters and encounter templates made it easy for the new GM to create strategies, and fun combat encounter.

    BUT for the players-players, 4E was a drag. First, the books suffered from SO MUCH revisions and erratas that one year after its publication they were obsolete. And each player had SO MUCH Powers with so many information in each that WotC had to put out an online tool to help you create your character.

    Worst of all, the Magic item system was another drag. Every character needed to had them, and each added another “once in a lifetime” power that you had to look up. Add potions fromoils, Wheatstone and nomcombat itens, and each player had a 9-pages sheet. And that was a huge speedbump.

    I believe that 5E should have borrowed more from 4E approach towards the GM. I hate the new CR/Encounter-building rules, as they are time-consuming and counter-intuitive. And as you’ve pointed out before, the DMG have little to none tips to GMs on how to actualy run the freaking game. With was something that 4E had to do it, because it changed so much of the preconceptions about D&D that they feel that an explanation was due. And it was.

    So, my toughts on 4E is that it was an marvelous game for the GM, but an exausting experience for the players, and one that made you feel more like you were runing a video-game character than role-playing (I.e. making informed decisions about) a character. They felt void of life, and crunched with combat mechanics. Só you had a hard time thinking about them as something more than a combat piece. It was possible, but not encouraged by the system.

    • Dunno man. NOTHING has satisfied my “crunchy character building” itch like 4E did. 3.5 is just too big a mess and too full of traps (and c’mon, it’s also an errata-fest. Pathfinder is basically a whole system of errata.). It mystifies me that people can hold this up as a complaint against 4 and not 3XPF.

      • I’m not putting 4E against 3.X (that system was WAY to much crunched in its late years). I’m saying that 5E did a lot better for PCs (calling back from AD&D and D&D), making it simple and agile to make a character and run the game.

        But, of course, there are players who like to mingle and twist with the array of Powers/classes/combo. Nothing wrong with that.

      • Right? What’s not to love about being to create a Dragonborn Paladin, a Dwarf Rogue, and a Shifter Wizard, all within the span of 10 minutes on your computer?

  9. I find it amusing that the tight link between game and world is praised here, when that’s the traditional argument against 4e. Primarily for the cooldowns on non-magical moves, but also pointing at how skill challenges have no built-in restrictions against half-doing three different approaches and resolving an encounter without actually doing so (climbing halfway up the wall, examining the architecture for defects, and distracting one guard to bypass the town gate); or the other weird quirks of probability where taking unrelated approaches and failing must necessarily sabotage chances of success elsewhere to keep the skill challenge’s success-failure tally stable. You can not let your players do this if it bothers you, or necessitate narrating the rest of the solution with assured success/failure once you’re done with the rolls that count, but the game doesn’t care.

    For consistency of world specifically, the argument I’ve seen is that the specific mechanism for inflicting an effect is glossed over, so you need to declare on the fly how things are happening which rankles people who are used to having the game’s fiction integral to the rules. If your power that knocks foes prone is described as a leg-sweep in play, but you fight a snake or ooze or flying creature that is not immune to prone, then there’s no rule to stop the power from working because even the official flavor text is just a suggestion. Skeletons can take ongoing damage from a “bleeding strike” power that you deliver with a blunt weapon. You can make up explanations for this (which I personally enjoy, so this is another reason for me to like 4e) but the need to do so puts in the forefront that the real world is the abstract mechanics and everything else is an afterthought to make the raw numbers more exciting.

    My 4e experience improved significantly in a Roll20 game where I set up macros for each player to put the full power text on the table whenever they used a power. Far less problems with people rolling before declaring what resources they were spending or just throwing a power name out and assuming I’ve memorized every book and magazine that Wizards of the Coast published during 4e’s run. It doesn’t help the analysis side of needing to read and parse all your options, but given that every single rules problem I’ve ever heard has been quickly resolved by reading the damn text, having the text right there smooths play nicely. I’ll also note that as soon as I saw the actual formula for monster defenses (14+level AC, 12+level non-AC, +2 for good/-2 for bad) I understood the value of rolls much better.

    • Here’s how my players and I might’ve resolved exactly the three successes you suggest:

      Halfling thief puts climbing talc on, free climbs 30′ up, gets stopped by smooth cornice she doesn’t have long enough arms to swing out onto. Dwarf inspects the masonry for defects and notices a poorly caulked joint on the other side and whispers to her to crabwalk sideways to get a handhold. As she’s moving toward the crack, the rest of the party hears the unmistakable clank of a guard’s hobnailed boots and the thump of a truncheon a shield from down the alley.

      I really like the 4e skill challenges. They’re pretty much how my friends and I have been playing these kinds of scenarios since the 1970s. Skills apart from combat and abilities was one of the things that drove us to Runequest and Traveler and Bushido from 1e D&D. And it’s one of the reasons I never understood why people thought 4e was all about combat. We can go hours with only skill challenge type resolutions if the characters are exploring or investigating.

      I don’t think the intent in 4e was to have the choices in the skill challenges be additive independently, though the mechanics are certainly written that way. First off, I let my players hatch a plan. They have to get over the town wall. I don’t enumerate the skills, options, etc. They usually come up with a plan for which there’s an easy mechanical resolution in terms of skills.

      I disliked the how in 4e, the designers tried to allow every skill to apply to every challenge. Nor how balanced the difficulties were across skills. For example, just about anywhere you can apply diplomacy in a skill challenge, you’ll find “show feat of strength” and “do an acrobatic trick” for the same effect. It diminishes the skill challenges to have all the skills be fungible, though you can see where the designers were coming from in making this decision. If someone tries to jump straight to “I’m rolling strength,” I gently ask them what their character is doing. They can almost always come up with something given that they also read books and watch movies and play video games.

      My second gripe was that the results of most published challenges were completely inconsequential. One more minor bad guy (as if that’s even a negative), a half-day delay, a loss of surges. Seems pitiful after 9 successes before 3 failures or whatever it was. I like to have real consequences. Otherwise, I just skip over the challenge or make it very easy just to bridge the narrative flow. Alternatively, my players often seem to create their own skill challenges on the fly by trying to do something unexpected to set up or avoid a conflict.

  10. Man, 4E IS a popular topic. When I started writing, there was only one comment. Now there are twelve!

  11. Prior to 4E, I only had two connections to D&D, the PC games like BG that I loved, and browsing the 3E books in the bookstores. But looking at all the fine print and cross-references in the rule books convinced me I’d never enjoy running that game (and I correctly knew if I wanted to play an RPG, it’d have to be as a GM). 4E came out, promised to simplify things and make the design more transparent, and I grabbed it and loved it. Played a few short campaigns with it, which mostly fell apart for interpersonal logistic reasons.
    I can definitely see the criticisms, long fights, some straining of suspension of disbelief, etc. But for me it accomplished what it set out to do.
    (And good points about the quality of the implied setting as well)

    • I don’t want this to come off as a personal attack, but I really feel that you can’t be an effective GM unless you’ve been a player for a while. You need to have that empathy for your players that comes from being in their shoes, and you need to see what good GMing looks like (and what bad GMing looks like) before you can develop your own style.

      My secret is that I run one group, and play in another. This way, I can purge my creative urges (GMing is way more creative than gaming, which is the appeal that you probably feel), but also I can develop the necessary player-empathy that you *need* to be a great GM. Kind of like how therapists need their own therapists, GMs need their own GMs. But that’s totally just my opinion!

        • I think that GMs that never play tend to lose the perspective of being a player. This isn’t 100% the case, and there are mitigating factors that I hadn’t considered before replying.

          For one thing, it’s hard enough to get your friends to play D&D, let alone to expect anyone beside yourself to step up as DM. If you’re the one organizing the group, you kind of have to step up as DM, because nobody else will. Hopefully as tabletop gaming continues to tip into the mainstream, it will be easier to find casual groups to meet up with.

          But one thing I see very often is GMs who’ve never played and create games that are very railroaded, because their primary concern is expressing the story that they want to tell. Because they’ve never played, they don’t know what it’s like to be railroaded. They don’t even realize that they’re doing it.

          This isn’t to say that if you play, your GM isn’t going to railroad you. Chances are, since GMing is a pretty rare skill, you’re probably going to play in at least one railroad group. But then at least you know what not to do.

          Or you could just read a lot of Angry GM and other resources. This is why I say this is an opinion, and not even a strong one. More of a personal suggestion. I learned a shit-ton from playing in a well-run Ebberon group, and it took my GMing to the next level.

          • I think GMs only need the perspective of “these people are my friends” to effectively run a fun session. You don’t need to cross the screen to get that way of thinking either. Your argument of “needing” to play is false just because of that premise.

            To get better as a GM you only need to see other games and what other GMs do and you can do that just by watching other tables without playing, or consuming actual play videos and podcasts. Not to ignore the tried and true method of “ask and/or listen to somebody with different experience” because there is a reason it is called that. There is no “need” for people to play in order to GM, it’s just a way for people to not get shoo’d from the table by those who hate being observed.

      • Also, not to speak for Randy, but maybe he meant that his group of friends had never played RPGs before and no one else but him would be willing to try being the GM? “It’d have to me as GM” sounds more like a resigned acceptance of burden than an expression of irrestrainable burning desire to be GM.

  12. 4E brought me back to D&D after a decade-long hiatus, and put together about half of my current play group, so I’ll always have a soft spot for it. The bog down of limited-use character options though (a four page character sheet plus 5 pages of “power cards” at level-freakin-7??) was what eventually doomed our 4E games and made 5E such a breath of air by comparison. 5E is lean enough that my group of 30-something year old professionals can play two-hour sessions on a weeknight and feel like we make great progress every time.

  13. The biggest problem IMO with 4E was that it kind of failed on most fronts. It was trying to be very tactical and strategic. The problem was, there just wasn’t a hell of a lot of required tactics to it. Basically your class told you exactly how to play the game, and there was no variance there. Unlike 3E which wasn’t afraid to mix it up sometimes and say “your sneak attack doesn’t work on this” or “this thing has a ridiculously high AC so try something non-AC based.” In 4E, everything was essentially cookie cutter, with similar stats that were all level dependent. And yes, sometimes monsters had slightly higher AC than normal or slightly higher reflex than normal or whatever, but it wasn’t really enough to ever get you to try something new. Part of the blame there came with how your powers worked, because you were basically stuck running one style of play. The cleric is always the healer and the bow ranger fires off shots with his bow until the heat death of the universe. In 4E when you fought a medusa, you didn’t bother to close your eyes or use mirrors or any of that crap, you basically fought it like any other monster, because the 4E design just didn’t expect PCs to ever adapt to anything. And if the DM actually decided to throw in an actual game changer, like say an anti-magic field or a group of flying ranged-attackers out of melee range, 4E characters just couldn’t adapt. So they basically had to remove game changers from the game entirely.

    My other main problem with 4E was the combat length. Relatively boring powers could maybe work, if combats were fast. You actually don’t need a hell of a lot of interesting powers if foes drop fast, because dropping a foe is an interesting effect in itself. The problem is that 4E did all it could to prolong the length of combats. The biggest issue was the combat healing: there was just way, way too much of it. To make matters worse, you could heal as a minor action and also “heal from zero” guaranteed all healing brought a PC back to the fight, no matter how badly injured he was. When a PC drops, one minor action later the PC is back into the fray with over 25% of his hit points. It was impossible to even remove a single PC from the fight until you depleted both all that PCs hit points and all his companion’s healing powers. Now, as you might imagine, that takes a ton of rounds, so the 4E designers, instead of nerfing the hell out of combat healing, decided to buff monster HP to compensate. As a result, every combat takes a lot of extra time grinding down the other side’s defenses. And there’s not much tension there, at least until the defenses start to run low.

    The other problem with 4E healing: Every 4E party had the same unique quality in the campaign world: They’re the guys that feign death, all the time. No matter how dead they looked, they were coming back into the fight, often multiple times. That’s the most remarkable characteristic every PC party shares over all the NPCs and monsters. I’m really not sure why designers seem to think having PCs feign death repeatedly is some awesome cinematic thing (13th Age’s designers seemed to think this as well). Popping up and surprising an enemy that you’re alive can be cinematic if it happens at a critical moment and very rarely. The problem is that in 4E and 13A, this is every PCs most remarkable schtick that sticks out in the campaign world. Every single PC in every game everywhere. Combats are a silly game of whack-a-mole, as PCs are constantly popping back up after getting knocked out. It’s not heroic, it’s just lame.

    • Wow. None of this jives with my experience with 4E at all.

      Also, most of your complaints apply equally to 5E and 3X.

    • 4e DM here.

      Once the enemies see someone heal from 0, they’ll try and coup de grace the next PC who drops. If they’re intelligent enemies who have reason to suspect the PC’s have a healer, they’ll try and do that from the start.

      Coup de graces are actually easier for the monsters to pull off in 4e, due to the expectation of there being several per encounter. 4e can be fairly deadly if the DM has the enemies fight smart.

      • I’ve never seen 4e played like that. Usually the mobs react by just trying to KO the healer. Wow, you’re pretty brutal (although not necessarily less fun!)

        • Thanks.

          I don’t play all the enemies like that. I am of the belief that fighting an intelligent, tactically skilled enemy should be much more dangerous than fighting mere beasts. In-universe there’s no reason a smart opponent WOULDN’T do that after seeing an unconscious PC get back up once.

          Of course, that means that the PC’s should only be fighting smart enemies at times when death could be dramatically appropriate. I never use smart enemies for random encounters.

  14. “You can ask people whether they’d like this or that or the other, but people are really bad at predicting what they will like.”

    This is why my default response to a new game is “Well, let’s try it and see how it goes!”

  15. In your monster building articles you said 5e had good or consistent logic in its monster design.

    Do you find it consistent enough that you use the rules you spoke of in monster building to create a world were lore and game play inform each other like in your love of 4e?

  16. As a DM I will always love 4e, as a player it will always disgust me. I’ll never understand why WoTC just threw out the great strides they made in 4th on the DM side of things when making 5th. I love fifth as a player…..but the DM side of things suck almost as bad as 3rd (but not quite that bad)

    • What do you find so hard about DMing 5E? If anything I found it one of the easier editions to DM. 4E I found kind of difficulty to DM, at least at higher levels, because of all the tracking of status conditions. Pretty much everyone was tossing status conditions around and most of them had a “Until end of next turn” duration, which meant you not only had to remember what creature had the effect, but also who put it there. I always got confused remembering what creatures had what conditions and when those conditions ended. Granted, 4E was far better than the DMing nightmare that 3E was, but I find 5E the easiest to DM of all.

      • For me, its building encounters. The XP budget + multipliers for number of monsters in 5E is a lot more complicated than building encounters in 4E was.

      • Also, spellcaster monsters are a bear to run in (5E) combat as the DM, especially if you have more than one of them. Sure, the pages of 4E power cards could be a little much, but it consolidated what he needed to run the character / NPC into one place so you’re not flipping across pages in three (so far) hardbacks of spell effects.

  17. I always felt somewhere along the line it became “cool” to hate on 4e. People would rattle off a list of complaints about it, but when questioned further they usually admitted to never actually playing it. They judged it before they’d even seen it, which was painfully obvious listening to their rants because they didn’t ever seem to know what they were talking about. It was always so sad, because 4e had actually fixed a lot of the beefs they had with D&D in general. Does 4e have it’s problems? Yeah, tons. But at least it was a step forward.

    I’m still running 4e games, and many of my players are 3.5/Pathfinder converts. I’ve had a lot of brand new players brought in by 4e as well. I showed one new player in particular the 3.5 Player’s Handbook and he said if he’d have had to learn to play with that book he “never would have gotten into D&D.” The sheer mass of the magic chapter alone intimidated him. 4e was accessible to new players, but had enough depth for veterans too. It saddens me greatly that Wizards has been forced to prematurely abandon a good game that was basically a diamond in the rough.

    • One of my players is having the same experience with 3.5 – he started in a 5e campaign (not mine), and then he played a lot in my 5e campaigns over the course of 1+ years, and finally he started playing in a 3.5 game run by a longtime 3.5 DM. Everything about 3.5 is infuriating to him – bloated skill system, overly complex rules for combat, weird limitations for low level spellcasters (most notably, cantrips consuming spell slots), etc. I know I would’ve enjoyed 3.5/PF if that’s what I started with, but I also know he would not have.

  18. Intersting take.
    All I know is 4e resulted in a long break from D&D for my group. 5e brought them back together plus another table of (new to RPG’s) players

  19. I’ve actually barely played 4E but I have to say limiting mechanics like cooldown and “x times per day” don’t bother me. I see them as just a slightly more abstract version of the kind of limiting mechanic you mention with fatigue penalties or saving throws or what have you. Clearly, characters have to be limited in their use of these sorts of abilities somehow, for both gameplay and story/realism reasons. How that limiting is achieved is of little consequence as long as it works.

    Interestingly, the somewhat obscure game True20, which I think came out a few years before 4E, did use exactly the sort of mechanic you suggest – for spells. You made a saving throw to avoid a level of fatigue every time you cast a spell, and the DC increased by 1 each time, then reset to its base value when you went to sleep.

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  21. I still play 4th ed every week, though heavily tweaked I admit. However, I feel like 4th was built from the best set of customizable pieces so that building new things, altering and creating rules, and inventing new monsters feels really easy, intuitive, and fun. It takes the least amount of “head-space” for me of any edition in figuring out how things work behind the screen, though I do find myself tinkering in front of the screen with feats and powers I find unbalanced. It did suffer considerably from power creep and ideal-builds that often made no narrative sense. I still find it very fun, though we use a ton of house rules to try to tidy up the rough edges. I really very much wish 5th had been an evolution of 4th rather than an abandonment of it. I love ideas like advantage and disadvantage and bounded accuracy, but I still feel more satisfied with 4th than any edition I’ve played.

    • You’d be surprised how much 4e made it into 5e, primarily on the player side. Short rests are still there, fighters got a lot of 4e derived abilities (action surge, second wind)

      • Unfortunately, all the stuff that I most disliked as a GM came back from old editions (like monsters with spell-caster levels), so I couldn’t even countenance running 5th after how much I liked 4th. I have heard positive stuff from players, though, but not so much from other GMs.

        • 1st of all, nice use of the word countenance. 2nd, I think you might find it easier than you think to move to 5e. Having spells like like players, in the new-old way is, yes, super annoying. But for the most part you can just read the descriptions ahead of time, figure out which spell you’re likely to actually use, and just forget the rest. the CR / EL stuff blows, but given the flat math is less important than it was in 3 or 4. You can always add more monsters on the fly or have the spellcaster run out of spells early if it’s going too hard or not hard enough for you.

    • I’ve heavily houseruled every edition of DnD I ever DM’d. 4e notably requires *less* houseruling than any of the others in order to make the game I want.

  22. Very interesting article, Angry. I’m a 4E-based gamer and I love the system, while acknowledging that it has its flaws and needs some fixes.

    I’d like to touch on the powers and “arbitrarily” limited use they offer. It is definitely a game-y element to it, that can be hard to rationalize in in-game terms, depending on what sort of power it is. For arcane spells, that’s a restriction on the spell itself (preparing your daily spells each day, it takes up X amount of your retention or something) and how those work. For something like martial exploits… Well, that flavouring falls on the players and GM – you can only pull that maneuver once in a fight, either because it’s risky or it pushes your (already high) physical limits a bunch. Powers are also set in mind to give players different options to customize what their character can do, beyond “when you make a melee attack you can either add on X, Y, Z, 2A, 45, XYD (see rules compendium).” It codified things and the power cards presented these elements in a concise format. It was also to keep balance, so that at every level of play, any character class can somewhat keep up with any other (while bearing class roles in mind). Powers and feats help two fighters feel substantially different, as a classic example.

    As for the skills system, I have found it was a fun but flawed implementation. I have taken the Lord Kinsington’s houserule set of rules for skills challenges, as used & popularized by Rodrigo of the Critical Hit Podcast (check them out, great game). You structure your challenge by having players work in initiative, presenting them a scenario that they have to overcome, and running it like a montage-type scene (as 4e loves to emphasize scenes). Players describe what they want their character to do to advance the scene, to justify use of a certain skill of their choice (open to DM veto or modification) so that nobody feels useless in a skills challenge. Restrictions include no player using the same skill two turns in a row, and not using the skill used immediately before their turn. It keeps the X successes before Y failures format, and consequences for success and for failure are up to the DM; ranging from narrative to mechanical to both, on either side. Really fun way to accomplish things in-game that would be ill-served by a 45-minute combat.

    I will say, having taken on the DDI character tools and not owning any physical rule books myself, I will have a difficult time playing 4e once its online support goes away. Until that time though, the character builder makes character generation a great joy for me as a player. Browsing, modifying and even building my own monsters as a GM is amazing as well; 4e’s encounter budgets make encounter building a dream.

    • Whoops. Onto my first point, I’d like to add that – at least in my experience of 5e – the “arbitrary” numbers of uses is still present as it was in 4e, just worded differently. A barbarian gets X rages per day, with more as they level up; druids can wildshape Y times for Z minutes, more as they level up. A bard can grant bardic inspiration CHA-times per day. Things like that which codify how well a character is able to use their ability (or how frequently), how taxing it is on them, help explain their relative power and capabilities. Spell slots and daily powers, to me, seem like a different expression of two similar systems. The former offers more versatility to those who get it, but it is rather close to the latter – just an alternate take.

    • Changing the online only version of the character builder is, IMHO, the worst thing they did to 4e. And not only that, but they built it around the unpopular silverlight which was discontinued almost immediately and is slowly being phased out. Lucky the original CB allowed people to make their own “House rule” rule sets and you can find downloads of other people’s house rules that are remarkably similar to the official 4e rules that came out post conversion.

  23. This was a good read and reflects my own feelings on 4e: as a great fan of that game I was quite saddened that WotC decided to scrap it altogether instead of iterating and building something new based on its foundations.

    Also, I quitell agree with you with regards to 13th Age: it’s not exactly a spiritual successor to 4e, although I do think it’s a good game in its own right.

    Another game which I’ve had a lot of fun with recently is a game called Strike!. Its combat system is very much 4e’s but with lighter math and at least for me it’seems scratched the 4e itch of giving me a tactical action game to play. I recommend you check it out, although I’m 100% sure it won’t pass your D&D litmus test.

  24. 4e had a few ideas that I liked in it (one or two of them it even followed through on), but ultimately even more than any particular mechanical change, my trouble with it was that it changed the pace and structure of the game from one that I liked to one that I really didn’t.

    Dnd is a game that has multiple levels going on at once. You have play on the Campaign level (bookkeeping, world travel, buying stuff in town) you have a sort of minigame for Dungeons within it (exploring, searching, navigating), and you have various minigames for Encounters inside that (fighting, talking, traps). If I was to break up a typical five-hour dnd session down into 15-minute chunks and show what time was spent where, I would want it to look something like this:


    Some bookkeeping stuff at the beginning and end, but a lot of short fast encounters and a lot of time spent dungeoneering. The dungeon is the chessboard and single encounters are nore like a series of moves than the whole game. The reason I hated 4e is ultimately because it thought of each encounter as its own chessboard, it would make that same session look like this:


    Exact same session except every single encounter takes 3-4 times as long to run. In the same time frame, we’d get maybe 1/3rd as much done, and the session would have only about half the time spent on dungeoneering. It made it really hard to use big dungeons, or to throw in combat encounters flexibly as part of the dungeon structure without grinding the larger game to a halt.

    • What you describe is exactly why my group stopped playing 4E and moved onto the 5E playtest.

  25. I find all of my complaints about 4th edition (and they are UNremarkably similar/exact to all of the problems listed above for 4th and other editions) all boil down to a bout of bad GM. Either the GM had a storybook they wanted the PCs to fight through; or they were so uncertain with the system that they were inflexible with the rules and that killed the flow, and the game, before they could get comfortable with the system. Both those and character bloat happen to any and all systems and I get that we don’t want to “lay the blame” on our friends when the rule set won’t kick you away from the table, but by bringing the issue up in a non-confrontational way it becomes a thing that the table as a whole can overcome bringing the group closer together.

    About Character Option Bloat: I find this is best solved by the player choosing a focus for their selections and quickly rating the mini-blurb “fits” and “doesn’t fit”, or by the GM limiting which books are available for selecting from. Both together work the best for me, but your mileage may vary.

  26. I, personally, think they give the PCs too many options at the front. If players got less powers up front and instead had more of them shifted towards, say, mid to late heroic tier, it might be easier for players to learn the system and feel less overwhelmed by choices. Melee characters in particular, don’t need to get their class given encounter and dailys upfront (although let the spellcasters get those) and don’t give them at-wills either. Maybe 1 at will at level 4 and the next around level 7. Again, give the spellcasters their stuff earlier, 1st at will level 1 and the second around level 3 or 4.

    • To me, this was something that 4e actually fixed- martial characters can finally do things other than “attack.” Spellcasters no longer have a monopoly on the spotlight. Furthermore, your proposed solution actually exists, it was called Essentials. I was lukewarm to Essentials myself, but when all is said and done I’m glad it existed.

      Normal 4E characters at 1st level have a mere total of four attack powers (2 AW/1E/1D) with maybe an extra one dependent on what class you were. If that’s all it takes to overwhelm a specific player…. it pains me to say it but *any* edition of D&D is probably not for them.

      • At least 6, actually. 4 from AEDU system, 1 racial (with Dwarf being the exception), and at least 1 class ability that can be coded as a power (Divine Challenge, Sneak Attack. Warlock’s Curse, Channel Divinity, Wizard’s Implement Mastery, etc). Few classes have nothing of the sort (Fighter is one of them), and a good bunch have more than one.

        I still think it is reasonable if your players has played any modern videogame, because most of them have more mechanics than

  27. 10 months late, but for anyone else going through Angry’s backlog like me, just wanted to say Ross’ game dungeon is great and everyone should check him out.

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