Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part One

Reviews are funny things. There’s reviews after reading. There’s first impressions after playing a single session. There’s thorough reviews following a game or two. And there’s long-term tests – the king of reviews. These reveal what you think of the thing after it’s finally gotten under your skin.
And this is mine, of Fourth Edition D&D.
Here’s the short version: if this game was a car, it would be the one I hated in the showroom, disliked and felt resentment at being fooled into buying by the pushy salesman, grumbled about for the first 100 miles then grew to quite like, then love. Now I’d cry buckets if it had to be towed to the knackers yard.
I’m guessing we’ve all had cars like that, right?
And that’s why reviews are funny things. If you’d asked me what I thought of 4e D&D at every step along this journey, you’d have a different answer. On my first readthru’ of the PHB I was downright savage. It looked to my virgin eyes like nothing short of a shambles with rules in all the wrong places, Rituals tucked into the back like some forgotten afterthought and – horror of horrors – a piss-poor mockery of an index.
My first play of the game was followed by just a single grumbling tweet: “Well, it plays better than it reads.”. It’s taken a long time to get my group to like it from the first faltering steps playing fun gladiator league matches in the Ptolus Arena to a short campaign set in Middle Earth (Cardolan, we will return!) and now in the run up to the end of the world in the Endday Campaign. It’s supplanted Third Edition in my mind as being the Second Best D&D Ever Made (after the Classic D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praise it’s holy name)) and that’s no mean feat.
Third Edition D&D is one heck of a hard act to follow. The supporters are fiercely loyal and it managed to completely turn D&D’s fortunes around. The rules began simple and while they gained a fair degree of complexity thanks to enough Splatbooks to sink Iceland, it managed to still stay playably fun all the way through it’s tenure as being the top of the D&D tree.
Unless you were the DM, that is.
To my mind, 3e suffered from just three problems which I’ll cleverly call Problem One, Problem Two and Problem Three. If 4e set out to do anything, it had to solve these.
The first (and, for me, the biggest) problem was that game preparation for the GM just took too long. Customizing (or, heaven forbid, creating new) monsters was this weird time-consuming science that could eat up hours like nothing else. That’s hardly fun when the resulting critter just lasts 5 combat rounds. I remember generating a 14th level Drow Wizard for one game; it took the best part of a weekend to create this guy and his retinue and less than an hour for my players to take him apart again. That’s hardly a great return. Yes, it’s brilliant in 3e that your bad guys and NPCs use the same rules as the players. But it’s less brilliant that it took damn ages to make them. The whole LA/CR/EL thing didn’t help matters either. Here’s a hint: if you have to explain the differences between them in the splatbooks and Dungeon/Dragon every single time they’re mentioned, it’s probably a rubbish rule.
And it was, and it’s gone in 4e. Woot!
Fourth Edition fixes that problem, perfectly. I can alter the level of a monster on the fly. I can build a whole new critter in under 5 minutes without needing a computer, and make it as simple or detailed as I want. Building an encounter is just a matter of totting up the XP totals, just as it should be. Give me page 42 of the DMG and I could run a game with nothing else. Ok, except maybe dice. Fourth Edition makes being DM fun again. I like that. Simple rules for the DM means the creativity flows and the prep-time slog is gone.
Problem Two sits at the opposite end of the table. It’s you, oh players, and 3e (and prior editions, for that matter) suffered under the shedload of silly, daft and anally retentive questions asked in the pages of Dragon and countless forums. Every time someone asked “is leather armour flamable?”, “where are the rules for gravity?” or “how much damage do I do with a flaming vorpal returning ghost touch longbow against a wight when I’m underwater and raging?” a fairy died. Please. Don’t do this.
Fourth Edition solved that by saying “Screw this. Ask the GM.” For that matter, 3e said that too. And so did 2nd Edition AD&D, but then TSR/WoTC promptly forgot all that and offered Sage Advice as a legally-mandated way for players to be able to tell GMs they’re wrong.
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes there are questions which only the designers can answer (such as “How the feck does Rain of Blows work?”) and to their credit they’re stepped up, clarified and errata’d where it’s needed. The number of rule questions is a thousandth of what it was though. That is a Very Good Thing Indeed. Simple rules + GM trust = win.
That’s enough for now. I’ll stop there.
Next: Problem Three, and ol’ Greywulf says something controversial about the OGL.

Reviews are funny things. There’s reviews after reading. There’s first impressions after playing a single session. There’s thorough reviews following a game or two. And there’s long-term tests – the king of reviews. These reveal what you think of the thing after it’s finally gotten under your skin.

And this is mine, of Fourth Edition D&D.

Here’s the short version: if this game was a car, it would be the one I hated in the showroom, disliked and felt resentment at being fooled into buying by the pushy salesman, grumbled about for the first 100 miles then grew to quite like, then love. Now I’d cry buckets if it had to be towed to the knackers yard.

I’m guessing we’ve all had cars like that, right?

And that’s why reviews are funny things. If you’d asked me what I thought of 4e D&D at every step along this journey, you’d have a different answer. On my first readthru’ of the PHB I was downright savage. It looked to my virgin eyes like nothing short of a shambles with rules in all the wrong places, Rituals tucked into the back like some forgotten afterthought and – horror of horrors – a piss-poor mockery of an index.

My first play of the game was followed by just a single grumbling tweet: “Well, it plays better than it reads.”. It’s taken a long time to get my group to like it from the first faltering steps playing fun gladiator league matches in the Ptolus Arena to a short campaign set in Middle Earth (Cardolan, we will return!) and now in the run up to the end of the world in the Endday Campaign. It’s supplanted Third Edition in my mind as being the Second Best D&D Ever Made (after the Classic D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praise it’s holy name)) and that’s no mean feat.

Third Edition D&D is one heck of a hard act to follow. The supporters are fiercely loyal and it managed to completely turn D&D’s fortunes around. The rules began simple and while they gained a fair degree of complexity thanks to enough Splatbooks to sink Iceland, it managed to still stay playably fun all the way through it’s tenure as being the top of the D&D tree.

Unless you were the DM, that is.

To my mind, 3e suffered from just three problems which I’ll cleverly call Problem One, Problem Two and Problem Three. If 4e set out to do anything, it had to solve these.

The first (and, for me, the biggest) problem was that game preparation for the GM just took too long. Customizing (or, heaven forbid, creating new) monsters was this weird time-consuming science that could eat up hours like nothing else. That’s hardly fun when the resulting critter just lasts 5 combat rounds. I remember generating a 14th level Drow Wizard for one game; it took the best part of a weekend to create this guy and his retinue and less than an hour for my players to take him apart again. That’s hardly a great return. Yes, it’s brilliant in 3e that your bad guys and NPCs use the same rules as the players. But it’s less brilliant that it took damn ages to make them. The whole LA/CR/EL thing didn’t help matters either. Here’s a hint: if you have to explain the differences between them in the splatbooks and Dungeon/Dragon every single time they’re mentioned, it’s probably a rubbish rule.

And it was, and it’s gone in 4e. Woot!

Fourth Edition fixes that problem, perfectly. I can alter the level of a monster on the fly. I can build a whole new critter in under 5 minutes without needing a computer, and make it as simple or detailed as I want. Building an encounter is just a matter of totting up the XP totals, just as it should be. Give me page 42 of the DMG and I could run a game with nothing else. Ok, except maybe dice. Fourth Edition makes being DM fun again. I like that. Simple rules for the DM means the creativity flows and the prep-time slog is gone.

Problem Two sits at the opposite end of the table. It’s you, oh players, and 3e (and prior editions, for that matter) suffered under the shedload of silly, daft and anally retentive questions asked in the pages of Dragon and countless forums. Every time someone asked “is leather armour flamable?”, “where are the rules for gravity?” or “how much damage do I do with a flaming vorpal returning ghost touch longbow against a wight when I’m underwater and raging?” a fairy died. Please. Don’t do this.

Fourth Edition solved that by saying “Screw this. Ask the GM.” For that matter, 3e said that too. And so did 2nd Edition AD&D, but then TSR/WoTC promptly forgot all that and offered Sage Advice as a legally-mandated way for players to be able to tell GMs they’re wrong.

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes there are questions which only the designers can answer (such as “How the feck does Rain of Blows work?”) and to their credit they’re stepped up, clarified and errata’d where it’s needed. The number of rule questions is a thousandth of what it was though. That is a Very Good Thing Indeed. Simple rules + GM trust = win.

That’s enough for now. I’ll stop there.

Next: Problem Three, and ol’ Greywulf says something controversial about the OGL.

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20 Responses

  1. Wyatt says:

    Oh ho, something controversial about the OGL. Spicy. Can’t wait to hear about that.

    For a creative type like me, 3.5 D&D was just completely horrible. I just HAD to custom-make my NPCs to exacting detail, with the right classes and templates and items out of 4 or 5 splatbooks at a time to get the detail I wanted, and this took so. much. god. forsaken. time. I’m so happy 4e doesn’t care for PCs and NPCs to share anything.

    As for the real world intrusions upon the game world’s physics, I never experienced that firsthand, but I did see it on forums. Specifically, I saw physics discussions on forums where people were trying to do something munchy by saying it was possible due to how the game mechanic’s flawed representations of reality worked (often, movement speed was one of the leading bits of weirdness).
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..The Clouded Palace: Part 1 =-.

  2. Swordgleam says:

    I felt the same way when I first read through the PHB. I went through this cycle many times: “*reads a rule* That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. *ten minutes later* You know, that’s actually a really good solution to the problem.” It took about ten repeats of this for me to start giving things a chance.

    I like 4e a good deal. And I know that on first look it doesn’t “look like D&D” and it annoys me that many people stop there. I’m not asking that people love the system – I know not everyone will like it as much as I do. But I do wish more people would go beyond that first look. You have, and I thank you for that.

  3. Thunderforge says:

    Thanks for the great review. You raised a lot of interesting points.

    My biggest issue with 3.5 is what I’ll call “Problem 4”. At beginning levels, magic users sit in the corner after casting one spell while martial classes dominate the battlefield. At high levels, wizards and druids obliterate everything on the field while fighters twiddle their thumbs and wonder why they even bothered to come (and the 15 minute workday didn’t help at all).

    Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast solved that problem in 4e by making everyone useful at all levels and ensuring that no class particularly dominated. While there is some criticism in that they made things “too balanced,” I would gladly have the Wizard and the Ranger both killing things rather than twiddling my thumbs while the Wizard obliterates everything.

    And at least they’re making an effort to keep psionic classes balanced!

  4. Jack Colby says:

    4e mostly undoes the problems introduced in 3e, which weren’t present until 3e. If anything, it shows just what an aberration and evolutionary dead-end 3e was in D&D history.

  5. drow says:

    hear hear. running monsters in my 3.5 campaign was fine until the party hit around 12th level, and kept getting worse. i switched to using the 4e monster manual by 20th level, and it was morning in america again.

  6. I think I’m the opposite. We’ve been playing 4e since it came out, and despite early enthusiasm, I think we’ve gone off it a bit. Everyone’s just as effective as everyone else, and the game works the same way at 15th level as it does at 5th, but that’s as much a problem as it is a benefit. It’s become bland and flat, and we’ve moved on to other games, leaving one of our 4e campaigns fallow (the other is still active, but it’s very roleplay/plot-oriented and we barely use the rules).

    For the record, I’ve never played 3e, only played a little 2e, and have clocked most hours on Basic. D&D in general is “the other game” for me, so I have no particular loyalty to any edition, although I do like Basic/RC a lot.
    .-= thekelvingreen´s last blog ..Ghost of Holidays Past =-.

  7. Also, I hate the 4e monster book, but that’s a presentation issue rather than an edition/rules problem.
    .-= thekelvingreen´s last blog ..Ghost of Holidays Past =-.

  8. The problem of monster creation time was not one I heard people complaining about until 4e came out.

    Most games of 3/3.5 I was involved in used the monsters straight out the MM which made it no different from any other edition. Sure, putting something special together takes (too much) time but it was a rarity for most GMs.

    The “ask the GM” aspect never changed, not in my experience. No one I knew subscribed to Dragon, we just made judgment calls and applied house rules. In 4e the rules are simpler, more codified that earlier editions which is generally a good thing and leads to less questions about rules around the table. But I’m not sure that 4e is really fixing a problem here.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Are They Heroes or Villains? =-.

  9. Greywulf says:

    @Chris I heard a lot about monster/NPC creation taking a hecka long time to do under 3e, and my own experience bore it out too.

    In our group we only got so far just using the critters straight from the Monster Manuals – I think it was the second or third session when I needed a more powerful Orc (or Goblin, or somethin’) and my prep stalled while I built it.

    At first I put it down to still learning the rules, but we’ve found that monster levelling and creation was always a time killer. If you played only published adventures I guess it’s less of an issue, but the point is it became something that many GMs actively avoided having to do. That’s not good.

    All those questions and clarifications being asked had a massive effect on the rules, whether you used them or not. Compare the wording of the Classic D&D Wish spell (or any spell, for that matter) with the 3e version – the 3e one reads more like a legal notice than a work of creative imagination with every contingency and corner case spelled out. That’s as a direct result of Sage Advice (a column which did more harm than good, imho).

    4e brings the simplicity back with the Powers (most of the time, at least) clear and concisely written with any corner cases left for the GM to decide right at the table. I much prefer it that way. It’s one of the reasons why (for me, at least) 4e feels more old school than 3e.

  10. I read through 4e, ran it a couple times, and just found that the game really isn’t for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t play it, but I prefer 3.5/Pathfinder.

    When I first started DMing 3.5 I did like you, Grey, where I had every little detail about all my own little baddies that I created and yes it did take me some time, but for me that was part of the fun. True though, all that fun was gone in 5-20 rounds or whatever as the characters mad mincemet out of them with all due haste..

    Then a few years back I threw all that out of the window and took a more abstract approach. I know what the general monsters saves and damages are at the level my players are at… So I just jot down some stats, give them a few powers with DCs that will make it challenging and some damage for the level and boom.. Done. I can create a decent and fun monster/enemy for my party in about 5 minutes.

    I’m not saying either is better or worse, because I believe it is all to personal preference. You like 4e, I like 3.5, and we can still drink a beer together:)
    .-= wrathofzombie´s last blog ..Pathfinder Bestiary Review =-.

  11. Nero says:

    Bah, Graywulf, you will hate e4 again in a month or two.

  12. drow says:

    penny for the guy?

  13. Neuroglyph says:

    Completely agree with Thunderforge – the way Wizards and Sorcerers grow from useless things to the lords of combat was a major disparity that has been fixed neatly in 4e.

    It’s funny that someone also mentioned the same thing I had experienced several times: around level 11 or 12, the amount of work to generate a single scenario became so cumbersome in 3.5 that it stopped making sense to play it. Which is a shame, because 3.5 was a great game, and alot of work went into it.

    D&D 4e is just better written and w hole heckuva lot kinder to DMs!
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Dungeons & Dragons: Inspirational Reading =-.

  14. Etherrider says:

    I have certainly enjoyed 4e as a DM. I did a module for an Eberron campaing which had a vampire caster of moderate level as the key NPC….it took hours!

    I re-did it for 4e…literally minutes (I think about 20 or so in research and 10 to write up).

    My group loved it from the 1st and had many of them back interested for the 1st time since 2e days.

  15. by_the_sword says:

    I have yet to play 4th edition even though i own many of the books. I love the simplicity of the new system but it’s hard to get my grognard players into a game.

  16. Random Bystander says:

    I was driving a good car, and I used it every day, and it was fine. Sure, sometimes it wouldn’t start, or a light went off, but all in all, it brought me from A to B, and, most important of all, I felt comfy in it. Then this brand new car came out, and you know, I HAD to buy it, because, man, I’m a sucker for cars! So I put my old car in the garage, and I went around with my Brand New Cool Car, and I had loads of fun driving it. And it brought me from A to B. And I felt quite comfy in it. And this time the light didn’t go off, but maybe I had a problem with the radiator, or the wipers weren’t really working properly. All in all, a good car. Like my old car. Only… new.

  17. Random Bystander says:

    in a more serious note, I want to add a small experience, something that happened to me a few days ago. So, my main party has swithced to 4E, but with some other ppl we keep a 3.5 game going on. I play a Warblade (the nearest thing to 4E I could find), we also have a Wizard and a Druid. Now, during some nasty fight, the Wizard polymorphed in a Behir (a multi-legged grappling-master lizard), and copletely owned some boss that was kicking our arses. Yes I know, it’s “unbalanced”, Wizards rule and all. But even for me, standing by watching, it looked freaking cool. I always imagine this things with my mind-eye, while I play. And somehow I feel I won’t see this again.

  18. Random Bystander says:

    don’t mean to spa this blog, just thought I’d coment on one more thing

    4e brings the simplicity back with the Powers (most of the time, at least) clear and concisely written with any corner cases left for the GM to decide right at the table.

    I may be an anarchist, but that’s one of the things that ticks me off in 4E. There is NO more need for the DM to adjudicate anything. “You inflict [W] and push one square”. Not much space for interpretation, or better, for imagination, for finding new way to use the power in a different way than “pushing”.
    Now, let’s take a simple 3E spell “you create an illusion…” omg… are you ready to write a book about those 4 words?
    PS: and gief CHARM spells back…

  19. Elton says:

    My problem with 3.0 was how everyone treated the OGL. Everyone made derivative works of Wizards stuff, but not everyone else’s stuff. My problem with 4.0 is not the game itself but the GSL. You can make derivatives of Wizards stuff, but . . . To tell the truth, I’d rather take the entire Lawyer Team, FORCE THEM to work out an agreement that makes D&D 4e Public Domain, and then kick them out.
    :)
    .-= Elton´s last blog ..There Goes the U.S. Constitution!! =-.

  1. November 8, 2009

    […] ‚ÄĘGreywulf has a piece on his long-term experience with 4e. He began with feelings of anger and apprehension but slowly came to enjoy the new edition. I was pretty excited for 4e, and despite not being terribly excited with 4e products nowadays, I am still extremely excited with the edition itself and playing with it, and reading what people are doing. Not only that, Greywulf’s being a tease at the end with that cliffhanger. I anticipate thrills and chills, Wulfy. […]

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