by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 15, 2012
I woke up the morning following the death of Osrik, my dwarf paladin, realizing the character had a power that would let him re-roll a missed hit when bloody. I’m not sure this would have turned the fight that cost the character his life, but it certainly would have helped. This got me thinking about 4th Edition and its pantheon of classes and powers a little bit more.
Playing–and killing–a few characters in 4th Edition will teach you that the combat mechanics of the game are important to grasp.1 With the Encounters game I participate in I had been playing characters whose abilities the official character builder picked for me. I found I spent the down time between my turns in a battle scanning my list of abilities, trying to pick the one that seemed most appropriate for the situation at hand. This is a sure fire recipe for death and destruction. It can also be kind of boring.
Looking around the table I could see that I was not the only one suffering from this problem. D&D is ostensibly a game where you can do anything you can imagine. That’s what makes it so much greater than a video game: the possibilities are endless. The way 4th Edition has been designed really discourages that sort of play. This is probably the biggest weakness with 4th Edition. When playing my Warlock in my regular 4th Edition game, I spend most of my turns in combat doing some permutation of: moving at least three squares to gain concealment; cursing my nearest enemy; casting an eldritch blast. No matter what the situation may be this is almost always my best choice of action.
The flip side to this is that the enumeration of all these classes and powers is 4th Edition’s biggest strength. You can quantify the challenge of a battle in a way you really can’t with any accuracy in earlier editions of the game. If you’re interested in tactical combat 4th Edition is really unrivalled when it comes to simulating a battle. I don’t think you could do something like Forth Core Death Matches with any of the older versions of D&D. I’m not getting the most enjoyment out of 4th Edition because I haven’t invested the time in learning what options my character has, and how they best work with those of my fellow adventurers. The question for any 4th Edition gamer is whether this is something they even want to do.2
People often compare 4th Edition D&D to a video game. Certainly Wizards of the Coast used a lot of modern video game language when describing character classes and the mechanics of the game, but I suspect that’s because that language is going to be most familiar to new D&D players. I think 4th Edition has more in common with Magic: The Gathering.3 You and your fellow adventures are working together to produce a winning mix of classes and powers–this seems analogous to deck building in Magic. The focus on game balance is a natural extension of this. Magic is a successful collectable card game because there is no one deck to rule them all. Wizards of the Coast seem to have taken what they learned making Magic and tried to apply that to D&D, with mixed results.
I’m curious to see if Wizards of the Coast, or the wider D&D community, do interesting things with 4th Edition once the 5th Edition of D&D has been released. I feel like there is a lot to 4th Edition, if you can get past the fact it’s not exactly the same as every version of D&D that proceeded it.
Some might say they are the only thing to grasp in 4th Edition. ↩
Wizards of the Coast even sell the various powers available for the various classes as packs of cards! ↩
Kiel of Dungeons and Donuts recently made a little hand-out for generating 4th Edition characters. Rather than bothering with classes or powers, he decided to ask players to pick a role and pick from a list of abstract powers. Players could then make up all the fluff that goes along with the role and powers they’ve picked. I’m a big fan of this idea. ↩