Sunday, August 30, 2009

Impressive features of 4th edition D&D

I was looking over 4th edition D&D and trying to summarize the things I really like and dislike about it. I actually found that, although I have various complaints about the execution of certain concepts, it is hard to find any major new idea I don’t like, and easy to find concepts I think are fantastic. So in this article, rather than concentrating on one aspect of the game, I’ll put down my overall list of the ideas I really liked.

First, concepts I think are my very favorite, ideas that would be good for any RPG. The weren’t necessarily first introduced by 4th edition D&D (I’m not keeping track), but when I saw them, I was really impressed, they made me think of things in a new way.

1) The tactical combat system. Although I don’t necessarily like every single element of the 4th edition combat system, overall, I am really impressed. I always liked how Champions allowed you to treat a combat as if it were a tactical board game, something interesting in and of itself. But I think 4th edition D&D does it much better. Combat is really fun! And making the combat system so good doesn’t seem to revolve around one new idea, but just a lot of hard work on a lot of things to make the system work so well. One of the features that really impresses me is how non-abstract the movement is, how important your exact position on the map is, in a non-trivial way. It allows movement-related powers to be really interesting, and allows characters to exert zones of control through opportunity attacks. This is something really different from most RPG’s I’m familiar with, where movement is just a way to go from “far away” to “close up” or vice-versa.
2) Taking ordinary monsters and making them distinctive and interesting. You know an idea is great when you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” I can often remember thinking how much more interesting it was to fight a band of supervillains than, say, a bunch of mutated animals who just tried to bite you. I never really quite thought of just arbitrarily assigning interesting combat maneuvers and powers to different animals to make the combat more fun. The way 4th edition turns kobolds into many types of kobolds with different “powers”, even if they have no magic, is really cool. A bit wacky, perhaps, but the fun factor way outweighs that. I think the detailed combat system really supports this by allowing a wide variety of different powers; there is a synergy here, it would be harder to make interesting monster combat maneuvers with a less intricate combat system.
3) Minions. Although many games have distinguished between boss monsters and “cannon fodder”, there is something about the implementation of minions in 4th edition that I find really appealing and inspiring (article here). It is cool that the minion’s statistics are skewed for better playability – instead of being weaker overall, the minion has full accuracy and is not easy to hit, but does low damage and takes only one hit to kill. This combination seems great. I have some issues with the execution of the minion within the game – many powers are allowed that are too good against minions – but I think the concept is awesome. I would definitely use minions in other games I make.
4) Healing as a minor action. The way that healing works in 4th edition D&D, from a viewpoint of the underlying game mechanics, is quite clever. On one level, making healing a minor action is very nice because it allows healers to fight as well as heal, making them more fun to play. But on another level, by giving the healer two heals per combat that don’t cost attack actions, you are turning healing into an attribute of the group as a whole. It means that the group as a whole has some extra “group hit points” which can fill in where needed, in order to keep everyone conscious and fighting. A very good idea, I’ve considered doing something like that myself.

Next, I list things I think are generally good, and particularly great within the context of D&D, as compared to previous editions.

1) Game balance! In previous editions of D&D, the classes were so different from one another that it was practically impossible to compare them in a meaningful way to tell whether they were balanced with each other. Especially since they change dramatically with levels, and at a different rate than each other. If they were balanced, which is doubtful, it would be purely a matter of art and extensive playtesting. In 4th edition, the classes are all built with the same underlying mechanism, and go up with levels at roughly the same rate. It is possible to compare them, and they are pretty close to game balanced. I’ve always been a devotee of game balance, but making such a drastic change to D&D took guts.
2) Making martial and spellcasting classes work the same way. Certainly you can do this sort of thing in Champions/HERO system. But doing this within the classic D&D framework is not something that had really occurred to me as a possible way to modify D&D. But now that I see it, I think it is great, it really does feel like the martial classes are just as cool as the magical classes. It makes me want to use this concept more often. I should mention that the idea is not so much that martial and magical classes are indistinguishable – that would be boring – but rather that martial abilities are just as interesting as magical abilities.
3) Encounter Powers. Previous editions of D&D had at-will powers and daily powers. Creating encounter powers as an in-between is a great improvement, a way to allow potent abilities to have limited uses without all the problems associated with daily abilities. Actually, I was tempted to put this on the first list, seeing the concept of encounter powers put into play with such interesting power lists really inspired me. I just have some uncertainty about the execution, and whether once per encounter is really ultimately the best way to do the powers (as mentioned here). But I’ve no doubt that this is a great improvement over what preceded it.
4) Races. I just like a lot of things about the new races. I like the selection of races; more cool races and fewer small, cute races. I like the way the racial powers make the races more interesting. I like that races are designed in such a way that a 1st level character can belong to a race that normally produces high-level monsters, and it feels perfectly natural.

Some additional changes in 4th edition D&D that are not particularly novel, but which I approve of:

1) Switching hit points from a daily resource into a per-encounter resource. I’ve written an earlier article about this.
2) Having skills go up automatically with levels, and having skill training provide a fixed bonus.
3) Giving each class a certain type of armor proficiency and then assuming they will wear the best armor they are allowed to wear. Also, the way you add your Dex bonus to light armor but not to heavy armor.

And some more interesting things:
1) The skirmisher concept. The idea of giving a monster an arbitrary bonus for moving around the map, just to encourage it to move around, is pretty clever. I think I need a lot more experience to evaluate how well it works, but it is an intriguing concept.
2) Having healing restore a fraction of the character’s full hit points, by defining a “healing surge” value. A handy way to package and present a mathematically useful concept.
3) Rituals. Separating the noncombat spells from the combat spells seems like a great idea. I’d put this in my list of impressive concepts (article here), except that I haven’t actually been inspired to use any of the the rituals in my games.
4) Allowing inspiration to count as a legitimate source of healing, so that you can have fighters heal themselves and warlords as a martial healing class. Weird, but a pretty convenient way to use the healing mechanic without requiring a very specific type of character conception (the cleric).

Next related article


  1. This is interesting. I have been using AD&D 1st ed. for decades, and of course like most I have house ruled various things. I always came late to knowing about new editions (I don't hang out at shops or go to conventions), and when I did get a look at 2nd edition or 3rd edition, I found that I have evolved my 1st ed. along some of the same lines as the newer editions.

    I think it may say something that not much that you outline for 4th is similar to my own evolution, so I guess that has either stopped, or that 4th is an entirely new animal. And I think this may be the case. I am also a long time Champions fan (my two most recent blog posts talk about my history with it), and a lot of what you point out sounds more like it's for Champs than D&D.

    I of course don't put down any other editions of the game, but I really don't think I will be trading up any time soon (shit, I have two copies of each 1st ed. book). Maybe when 5th edition comes out!

  2. I would basically agree with your comments on evolution. 2nd edition was pretty similar to 1st edition. 3rd edition was a drastic rewrite, but was still recognizably an evolution of the same system. 4th edition, in my view, is a totally different game. It doesn't really evolve the same game system, it is more like a new game that reinterprets the same material as the older game. It is inspired by D&D, but also by knowledge of many other great games that came out since 1st edition D&D, including Champions. I love 4th edition, but then, before 4th edition I preferred the other, new games to D&D. If you really loved the old D&D, I could easily imagine that you wouldn't want to move to 4th edition, because it is not the same game.

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