What 4e does right, part two

We’re looking at the things which Fourth Edition D&D does well and highlighting the elements which the next edition of D&D could inherit. Later posts will take a look at earlier editions of D&D, going all the way back to the roots of the game.

Last time I put forward the way 4e handles Stats, Hit Points, Power sources and abilities, the three Tiers of play and easy encounter building as areas of strength.

Moving onward!

Background Options and Themes

Man, I love these puppies. Why be a Dwarven Cleric when you can be a Dwarf Outcast Cleric Harper Agent? Background Options give a +2 bonus or an extra skill on your Class Skill List, and Themes add a couple of Powers to your repertoire, but they add so much more to the role-playing potential. Background Options and Themes are crack for the GM, giving them plot hooks and player-centric story potential by the bucket-load.

Remember when I talked about Levers? Background Options and Themes are just such a Lever – optional rules that can be turned on of off depending on the needs of the campaign and game group. If I want to run a fast, low-effort Delve-based 4e D&D game, I don’t use ’em (though if a players wants to use them for his particular PC, that’s fine) and a Dwarf Cleric is just a Dwarf Cleric. On the other hand, if this is an immersive role-playing intensive campaign where I want the characters to have a sense of place and a history, I pull the Lever and they’re in.

The next Edition of D&D needs Background Options and Themes (or optional rules very like them) in the core rules, right from the start.

Monster stat blocks

I still shudder and break out in a cold sweat at the memory of Third Edition D&D monster statblocks. Those things were (no disrespect intended to the designers) terrible. I remember even low- to mid-level adventures from the pages of Dungeon magazine where the major and minor villains’s statblocks took up a half to a whole frickin’ page of dense text – and that excluded such things as spell descriptions. You still needed the books open for those, remember. Ah, those were the days, may they never return.

Enter Fourth Edition D&D where the monster and NPC statblocks are smaller (though some still are a tad too hefty for my tastes) but they are entirely self contained. Everything you need to run that critter, no matter how complex he is, is right there on the page. Goodbye looking up spell references halfway through combat. And they say Fourth Edition combat is slow – try juggling 5 different splatbooks in the middle of a climactic battle. Thanks, but no.

Much as the latest incarnation of the D&D statblocks is good, I do feel there is still room for improvement. what I would like to see is the return of some key elements from earlier editions of D&D that got lost in the mix. 4e’s over-emphasis on Combat uber alles is to the detriment of an otherwise excellent game, and I do hope that the next Edition correct that and brings back just a little more old school role-playing style.

In fact, I’ve blogged about just that already. I suggest you have a read.

Points of Light

Conceptually, the Points of Light premise is awesome. It depicts the D&D known world (any world) as a dark and dangerous place where pockets of civilization and the Forces of Good are barely holding back the Forces of Evil. The PCs themselves are tiny little mobile Points of Light that seek to expand the borders and halt the encroaching blockness.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Overall, Fourth Edition D&D is a brilliant yet much maligned system and I hope the next Edition of the game will learn much from it.

Next: Third Edition D&D!


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12 Responses

  1. Geoff Smith says:

    Wait! You’ve only covered what it does well! I’m a firm believer that you don’t know what to do unless you know what NOT to do. What do you think 4e did that was terrible that should no be done again?

    I have my own list, but it’s largely a lack of character customizability (there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop progressing as a particular class, and there didn’t seem to be a way to play a mundane farmer, commoner, or expert (blacksmith, sage, sailor) without also making them some kind of super-hero with powers and the whole shebang (the message boards suggested just make a fighter or rouge and call them a farmer or whatever, but that’s just not the same, IMO)) and odd complexity (I could never figure out how to heal with my first level Cleric except by doing damage, which made playing my pacifist healer terribly hard to play, we house-ruled that he could damage himself to trigger those weird healing surges, but that seemed counter-productive… the whole class was just weird to play).

    There are things I loved conceptually from the pre-release discussions that didn’t seem to make it into the game. The differences between rods, staves and wands and how they would be used to augment various kinds of spells, the different ways in which a stat might make different weapons better… there were some others, but I can’t remember. I was on those Wizards boards A LOT and was really excited about 4e until I actually played it… :/

    Oh, the other thing that killed it was the decoupling of the mechanics from the color. “Command” still had the same description it always had, but it didn’t actually work that way any more. Your command could only elicit a limited number of reactions, and some of them were in no way possible to communicate in a single word. They seem to have focused on everything being combat (which is one of the reasons it feels so much like an expanded miniatures game ruleset, a role at which it really excels! though, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an elegant way to play without using a lot of miniatures now…) and I think it really missed out on a lot of the earlier edition’s ability to cleverly use abilities and spells to solve unique problems in creative ways. You were fine if you wanted to use command (just as an example I’m using to nit-pick) in the prescribed way, but you couldn’t use it to command someone to smile or fart or even undress…

    • greywulf says:

      > Wait! You’ve only covered what it does well!

      That’s because these blogposts are called “What 4e does RIGHT”, not “what 4e does WRONG”. As I stated in the first post I want to take a close look at the positive in each edition. rather than go over the negative aspects for the N-th time. That’s rather been done to death already.

      That said, you do bring up some good points and highlight some areas of misconceptions that still stick to Fourth Edition D&D like glue.

      Let’s take ’em one at a time.

      > I have my own list, but it’s largely a lack of character customizability (there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop progressing as a particular class, and there didn’t seem to be a way to play a mundane farmer, commoner, or expert (blacksmith, sage, sailor) without also making them some kind of super-hero with powers and the whole shebang…

      To an extent, I agree. Fourth Edition is designed for the PCs to be heroes right from the start. I’ve said before that a 1st level character in Fourth Edition is roughly on a par with a 4th level character in 3rd (minus the magic items, of course). A part of the reason for that is the high values in the default stat array; the majority of PCs will have an 18, 20 or more in their main stat, that that’s translates to a +4 or +5 bonus before you even start. That’s just pandering to the power-gamer mentality. Lower the stat array (or just use 4d6, drop lowest) and sanity begins to be restored.

      Making a farmer or blacksmith is where Background Options come in. Any PC could have been a farmer (or whatever) before they took up adventuring, and the chosen Background Option can reflect. for example, I could create a Fighter with the Background Option of Occupation:Farmer (which gives him access to Nature as a Class Skill), arm him with a Pitchfork and we’re done.

      I actually prefer 4e multi-classing rules head and shoulders over those of Third Edition. Your PC can just dabble in a different class (ie, take the Multi-Class Feat), or create a one-of-a-kind Hybrid class by mixing elements of two (or more) classes together. That hearkens back to AD&D’s Dual Class rules, but done better.

      The rules explicitly allow retraining of any element of your class when they level up too, meaning that could PC can learn, re-learn and un-learn things as they develop. I find Fourth Edition has the best, most flexible character generation D&D has ever had, and my players agree.

      > … and odd complexity (I could never figure out how to heal with my first level Cleric except by doing damage, …

      Just because a character has Powers doesn’t mean they have ot use them. That’s a part of the tempation of being a pacifist Cleric, I guess. You could blast that Kobold with your Lance of Faith or hit them with a weapon, but your convictions and faith demands that you resist the tempation. That’s called role-playing.

      Playing a pacifist Cleric would involve lots of use of the Heal Skill (DC 10 skill check to provide First Aid, allowing the target to use a Healing Surge, or a DC 15 check to grant them a saving throw against an effect).

      Healing Word can be used twice per encounter and allows the target to use a healing surge and gain an additional 1d6 (or more) hit points – no attack roll or damage needed.

      Later supplements and Dragon articles provide further options for the pacifist Cleric, but even straight out of the original 4e PHB it’s no problem to create one.

      > They seem to have focused on everything being combat…

      Agreed. The over-emphasis on combat options, especially in the PHB, was a big mistake. The good role-playing stuff is there (primarily in the excellent DMG), but it’s frankly drowned out by too much ink used covering combat.

      > …. and I think it really missed out on a lot of the earlier edition’s ability to cleverly use abilities and spells to solve unique problems in creative ways.

      It’s still very much there (again, mainly in the DMG and later books) but it was not put front-and-centre where it belonged. That’s a matter of presentation, and something I really hope they address in the next Edition.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      • Geoff Smith says:

        > As I stated in the first post I want to take a close look at the positive in each edition. rather than go over the negative aspects for the N-th time.

        Of course you’re entirely right! I missed that part… Sorry about that… I just like discussing game design, and that includes positive and negative.

        I think it all largely depends on the actual design goals. If those goals are clear, it’s possible to reasonably determine how well they were reached, and I tend to think that’s where 3rd and 4th edition both fail some. I also think that’s where the ‘levers’ could be really useful, allowing customization in really interesting ways.

        You could combine levers with a basic system that included a basic prep-lite methodology, systems for character emerging complexity, a points of light setting and easy to ad-lib encounters (like 4e does so well) to make a game that can be started from opening the book to playing in a few minutes with complexity that gets added over time (maybe you just pick a name and a single, basic attack perhaps going so far so as to ignore even stats until later levels or until they’re needed). Your M20 does this pretty well, actually, though it makes it much easier to do if you’re already familiar with D20. This would allow much lower costs of entry for new players and much faster adoption of groups combined with the ability to have really complicated games as they progress (or just throw all the switches all at once and start off with something complicated :).

        I know you’re focusing on what’s good in previous editions, but I’m also inherited in what you love from other systems that would fit within D&D.

  2. Elton says:

    Robin, 4e was an honest attempt to do something different. It’s a good game, but it doesn’t accomplish what I hoped it would do. It didn’t deserve the moniker D&D. Oh, Robin, be sure to point out the OGL as something that was good for 3.x.

  3. Crose87420 says:

    Like the edition articles! So onward…

    Background Options and Themes such as a Dwarf Outcast Cleric Harper?
    Pull the lever to include it, or….just RP it and save yourself some money on the splat book and extra PC sheet space.

    A modular game satifies both parties, though, both parties can achieve the same ends (through RP’ing).

    Monster stat blocks,
    Oi’! I was looking over some high level 3.5 adventures and the stat blocks were huge. No-can-do, maybe in a super-important battle but on the average can’t do it. Gimme something I can work with without having to call a 10 minute smoke break.

    Points of Light
    Yeah, any world, any edition.

    It looks like the modular ability of the game may be its biggest point of promise/contest.


  4. Oh god, the stat-blocks! If they keep anything from 4e, keep the idea that monsters don’t have to use the same rules as PC creation. I can do without a page of spells and spell-like abilities the creature is never going to get a chance to use (or uses most of them pre-combat in buffs).

  5. Jonathan says:

    I’d like to add one thing to the list, because it’s the one thing my friends here always cite as the best thing about 4th edition: the role of healer.

    Not just because healing has been spread around through the use of healing surges (I think you covered that last time), but because healing powers were changed so that a cleric (or a warlord or whoever is acting as ‘leader’) could do X AND heal, rather than being stuck playing the role of human bandaid constantly. Which was always sad for them, since I seem to recall that 3E clerics had some really cool spells they almost never got to use. ;)

    • greywulf says:

      Agreed entirely. Fourth Edition D&D’s approach to healing is excellent, thanks for reminding me I’d missed it off the list :) My favourite class in 4e is the Warlord – I love the image of a PC urging his comrades to carry on beyond the limits of their endurance. Brilliant interpretation of “healing”.

      • Jonathan says:

        As long as I’m thinking positive, one of the things that instantly struck me about 4E was the way material is presented. I know for some people that was negative, because it was ‘different,’ but 4E was the first edition I remember that makes it really clear and easy what part of a power (or spell or whatever) is flavor text and what part is mechanical stuff.

        This was a pet-peeve of mine in 3.5 and seeing it fixed was a breath of fresh air. It makes deciding what you want to do with a character a lot less confusing. :)

  6. Popesixtus says:

    This is a great list. I would add the minor-move-standard action economy to the top of the list that 4e does extremely well. I’ve played a cleric in every edition, and the 4e version is the best by light years because I didn’t have to choose between healing spells and buff-bot spells in a round – I could do both! Brilliant!

    I have some comments on what 4e gets right and wrong on my blog, specific to DMs. The short story is that it was absolutely great for DMs in a certain wheelhouse – those who liked to spend 50% of sessions or more in combat, and who played with with solidly built PCs that weren’t overly optimized. It broke down when the players really pushed the optimization limits. Player synergy shot through the roof, and monster/ encounter tools just didn’t keep up. On the other side, I like how you put it in a comment, how there was so much ink spilled on combat, it covered roleplaying. 4e didn’t inhibit roleplaying, but didn’t encourage it, either. So 4e kind of failed DMs in super-tactical games, and in super role-playing games. But in its wheelhouse, it was great! I’m hoping the new edition expands that middle to really accomodate more playstyles.

  1. January 23, 2012

    […] Greywulf starts a breakdown of what various editions of D&D did right (and a bit of what they did wrong), starting with D&D 4e (Stats, Hit Points, Power Sources and Abilities, The Three Tiers, and Easy Encounter Building).  The second part relating to D&D 4e covers Background Options and Themes, Monster Stat Blocks, and Points of Light. […]

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