What 4e does right, part one
The next Edition of D&D has been announced and the designers have said that they will be looking at every prior Edition to learn from them and aim to make this Edition the best, most inclusive edition of D&D to date.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at each edition starting with Fourth Edition and working back to see if we can bring out of the positive in each. To my mind, every single edition (regardless of publisher, designer or age) can be summed up with the same single line review: Brilliant, but flawed.
That’s as true with Fourth Edition as it is with Third Edition, AD&D, Classic D&D and all the minor variants thereof. Every edition of D&D has moments of genius, and alongside that are the things which it does less well. Each and every one of them is brilliant, but flawed. In some ways, these flaws are an important part of the D&D Experience – they encourage house-rules, GM calls and general rules tweakery that are all part-and-parcel of playing D&D. And of course, one gamer’s flaw is another gamer’s killer feature that differentiates their edition of D&D from all the rest.
For the purpose of these posts, I’m going to focus on the positive and see if it’s possible to take these elements and somehow blend them together to make – if not a perfect edition of D&D, then at least one which aspires to be.
On with the show.
Fun fact: you can tell the age of a gamer by how he orders his stats. Fourth Edition switched a couple around from the way Third Edition did it, giving us the sequence STR CON DEX INT WIS CHA. The highest stat bonus in each pair (STR & CON, DEX & INT and WIS & CHA) modified the PC’s Fortitude, Reflex and Will saves.
That’s just genius. It’s elegant, smart and easy to explain. A clever Wizard knows to get out of the way whereas at high-DEX Rogue relies on his natural agility, and you can stop magic through sheer force of personality and great looks. I love that.
I pray that Fifth Edition keeps the 3-18 range for stats, and keeps the Fourth Edition order for them.
4e introduced the idea of bad things happening when you were down to half your Hit Point value (Bloodied), and Healing Surges that represented your body’s ability to recover. Both of those are great ideas, but where 4e didn’t do so well with Hit Points is that there are too damned many of them. Heroes and even moderate level monsters have far too many Hit Points, and that (tests show) is the Number One cause of Slow Combat Syndrome.
Oddly enough, this is a problem caused not by the hit point mechanics themselves (which are pretty smart) but with a flawed core design decision in the game itself: that of avoiding imposing penalties where possible. This means that rather than imposing a -4 penalty for using a non-proficient weapon, Fourth Edition gives a bonus for using a weapon you’re proficient in. Thanks to that boost, hero is more likely to hit in combat meaning the monster has to have more hit points to compensate.
Net result: too many damned hit points, and long combat.
So, use the Fourth Edition Hit Point mechanic, but bring back Third Edition style penalties. It’s a win all round.
Power sources and abilities
Fourth Edition codified something already existing and alluded to in previous editions of D&D: Power comes from many sources. 4e gave us the Arcane, Divine and Martial Power sources followed by Primal, Psionic, Shadow, etc in later books.Conceptually, it’s great but the terminology went (let’s be frank) a little bit up its own ass.
What the next Edition needs to do is build on that, but remove the word “Power” entirely from its vocabulary. Just call them “Sources”, and call the abilities…. “Abilities”. Fighters have Martial Abilities, Wizards have Arcane Abilities (we call ’em “spells”) and Shadow Dancers know disco.
Rather than limiting the Abilities to At-will, per Encounter or Daily, key them to Triggers which say when (or if) an Ability can be used. A Trigger might well be “At-Will” or “Daily”, but it might also be “when an enemy hits you”, “when bloodied”, “once before the next full moon” or even “when down to 0 hit points and about to be eaten”.
Oh, and no per Encounter Abilities. Triggers should affect usage frequency, not some meta-game condition. As with D&D Essentials, make the Abilities match the class first and foremost rather than striving for symmetry in all things. If a Class would work best with only At-Will abilities, that’s how you make it.
As it stands, Fourth Edition is great at what it does. If Fifth Edition wants to do better though, it needs to take what 4e has given, and enhance it.
The Three Tiers
4e hearkens back to Classic D&D’s Basic/Expert/Companion & Master “tiers” of play with its Heroic/Paragon and Epic tiers, and I see no reason to change that.
What I would like to see it them expand on it by adding new elements to the game. Give me Strongholds in the Paragon Tier, and control of whole Empires at Epic!
Easy Encounter Building
There’s nothing easier than adding a bunch of XP. Fourth Edition makes creating Encounters dead simple, and generally speaking the difficulty works out about right every time.
I hope they keep it as simple as this, and don’t go back to Third Edition’s nasty Challenge Rating system. They wouldn’t…… would they?
That’s enough for now. Part Two to follow.