A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Review: 4th Edition D&D

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on June 27, 2014

Tagged: 4e

My friends and I played in a 4th Edition campaign that ran for 3 years, give or take. Once it came to a close I continued playing 4th Edition D&D at the Encounters public-play events organized by Wizards of the Coast. I thought I should write up my thoughts on 4th Edition as it quietly makes room for the 5th Edition of D&D.

When my friends and I started our 4th Edition game we had six players: two were brand new to role playing games, while four including myself had played previous versions of D&D. I don’t think any of us had played 3rd edition—I certainly hadn’t. Even those of us who were experienced gamers hadn’t played a game since high school—that was a long time ago.

When we first started playing 4th Edition I felt like the game had been greatly simplified. Pretty much any situation is decided by trying to roll as high as you can on a 20-sided dice. Situations are assigned difficulty classes (DCs), a number that needs to be beat on the roll of a d20, that indicates how tricky a task is to accomplish. Combat also works this way too. Armour is essentially a difficulty class as well. To hit someone in plate mail you need to beat their AC of 18 when you roll a d20 and add your bonuses. That’s right, no more negative AC! At first blush this made explaining the rules of the game simple: if you want to do anything contentious you just roll a d20. Still, initial gaming sessions were fairly slow going. Eventually it became clear that while some rule changes simplified the game, others added levels of complexity that didn’t exist before.

Character creation is a slow going process in 4th Edition. There are powers and feats to worry about, and lots of bonuses to track. I don’t know if I really noticed how much slower it was the first time I made my character: it was fun and exciting to be playing D&D again. After having to make characters several times for D&D Encounters that charm quickly wore off. I find making a 4th Edition character a giant pain in the ass without the 4th Edition character builder. Even with that tool making a new character takes way longer than I want it to. There is something refreshing about making a character for one of the older editions of the game. My generator spits one out in seconds, but doing it by hand is still quick. (The only real place for analysis paralysis is buying equipment.)

Combat, which felt a lot more open ended and free form in earlier rule books, had become a fair bit more structured in the new rule books. The use of miniatures is assumed, making the game feel a bit like Warhammer. There is a strong tactical combat element to D&D 4e. In my mind this is the biggest plus and minus of the edition. If you are not into the whole ‘combat as chess’ thing you’re going to find playing 4th Edition frustrating. Most gaming sessions with my friends would be spent slogging through combat. We might get through a couple fights in between some exploration on a given gaming night. Combat in 4th Edition is slow going at early levels, and only gets slower as characters level up. In my mind having such clear cut powers also discourages creative play. These explicit “moves” feel stifling. For each situation in combat there is often an optimal choice when it comes to doing damage or providing support. It’s rarely the case that going off script is that optimal choice.

Teaching someone how to play D&D using the 4th Edition rules is trickier than it needs to be because the rules for combat are so complex and nuanced. People need to think about combat advantage and flanking and all sorts of stuff that they might not have thought they needed to think about when they signed up to play pretend. That’s not to say this sort of thing doesn’t exist in older editions of the game, it’s just managed in a simpler loosey-goosey way. Combat comes up often enough in most games of D&D that this is problematic.

Eventually the warts in the game are all you see. I liked playing 4e with my friends, but in hindsight I think we’d have been better off just playing 2nd Edition, which we had grown up with. Of course, we’d probably not have started playing D&D again out of the blue if not for the new edition. For that reason alone I will always have a soft spot for 4th Edition: it’s what got me back into D&D.

Public-play games transitioned to play testing D&D Next, and on my own time I shifted to playing Original D&D. Both variations of the game felt like an improvement over 4th Edition. 5th Edition looks to have addressed my big complaints with 4th Edition: combat is much simpler and faster, and character creation is much simpler. 5th Edition takes the d20 rules from 4th Edition and simplifies them further. Depending on what bits and pieces from the play test they turn into 5th Edition, it may turn out to be the easiest version of D&D to teach and learn. I’m really looking forward to 5th Edition.

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