I've been impressed at how Wizards of the Coast has issued online updates to correct issues with D&D 4th Edition. The question of issuing rules changes is always a tricky one. On the one hand, it means the rules are constantly changing, and your books you purchased soon becomes obsolete. On the other hand, it allows the rules to be constantly perfected, rather than having mistakes be carved in stone, making the game become slowly more and more obsolescent. As a lover of game design, I prefer the game to be updated and improved.
They seem to have changed their update philosophy. When the game was first released, there seemed to be no sign they would correct any rules imbalances, as they didn't seem to give much feedback. Then they started issuing fixes to badly worded rules and gross game balances. Recently they seem to have become more aggressive, really trying to solve game balance issues, as if they were a MMORPG.
Since I'll need to explain the rules changes to my players and friends, I decided to call attention to the rules changes I think are most significant, and what I think of them. Since there are a lot of changes, I'm concentrating in this first article on the more general rules changes and major racial/class feature changes. A lot of these changes were made in the recent May update, but I'm not restricting myself to those.
An extensive change in May was to change the tieflings racial power to some quite different. Instead of getting a bonus to their next counterattack after being wounded, they instead get automatic fire damage on the attacker. This is certainly a lot more potent than the old Infernal Wrath, which I considered to be a rather minor racial power. The other tiefling racial powers seemed pretty decent. I suppose the tieflings were not one of the more powerful races, but I really don't know why they decided to make such a major change.
Zone and Aura attacks no longer have the restriction that the damage they cause isn't cumulative. On the plus side, this is good from a game balance perspective. Before, if you had two creatures with damaging auras (say, 2 howling hags), the second creature was clearly not worth as many points as the first, because you could only take damage from one of the auras. It meant that one howling hag was a pretty scary addition to the fight, but a sisterhood of howling hags was pretty ineffective. Really, if you were a monster, you wanted to hang out with some totally different monster – having a fire aura and a cold aura together was a deadly combination, rather than cancelling out as you might expect.
On the other hand, this change doesn't necessarily improve game play - the GM can always make encounters with multiple identical aura creatures a little tougher to compensate, and you end up with an interesting tactical problem that killing one of them doesn't stop the aura. Also, the game is still chock full of things that don't stack, anyway. It is still the case that monsters with similar ongoing damage don't stack well. And creatures with dazing auras still don't stack. So I'm not sure why it was so important to issue a change to just how damaging zones and auras work.
The clerical power Healer's Lore was weakened so that it only applies to healing that spends a healing surge; the stated reason is to "reduce the potency of surgeless healing, such as astral seal". This seems like a good change, because many of the clerical powers to which it applied seemed more balanced without it, and adding Healer's Lore to a small amount of healing boosts it massively.
However, this did make me notice that I hadn't paid too much attention to the new clerical powers in Divine Power, such as astral seal. It always appeared to me that an unstated design premise of D&D4 was that healing that does not require a healing surge must always be a daily power. This is necessary to fit into the design of the healing surge system. The rule that healing requires use of healing surges gives you a resource that can only be restored by an extended rest. This means that, in an adventure with time pressure, the damage you take from a fight has meaning, if you take too much damage over multiple fights you will be forced to take an extended rest. Allowing surgeless healing that is still daily doesn't change this, it is still a resource that needs an extended rest to recharge. But if you allow surgeless healing with an at-will power, then you can forget the healing surges almost entirely and bypass this aspect of the game.
Now, astral seal comes with the limitation that you can only use it in combat, so normally you can't use it for unlimited healing. But allowing this sort of power creates an incentive for perverse tactics, like intentionally leaving a monster alive but helpless so you can beat on it until you heal. So it is puzzling that they removed the unspoken prohibition on non-daily surgeless healing.
The Aid Another action was fixed. Before, it required a check against DC 10, regardless of level, which made aiding easier (indeed, virtually automatic) at higher levels. This was too easy, and violated the general D&D principal of making things scale regularly with level. Now the DC is 10 + ½ level, and if the check fails, the aid gives a -1 bonus instead of a +2 bonus. It also mentions specifically that the DM should sometimes limit the number of creatures that can give aid. These changes make the actual skill level of the creature giving the aid meaningful and reduce the extraordinary ease of aiding another, so I think they are clearly an improvement.
The dominated condition was reworded to not make the dominated creature dazed, but has about the same effect. I'm sure there was a reason for the change, but I don't know what it was. Similarly, the restrained condition was reworded to not be based on immobilized, and to prevent even forced movement. This is cute, but I'm not sure why it was done. I think it is a fine rule, but I usually figure that published rules shouldn't be changed unless the new rule is a substantial improvement, and I don't really see how this qualifies.
Forced teleportation now gives a saving throw if you attempt to teleport a foe into the air or into hindering terrain. Seems like a good rule for balance. Also, a peculiar interaction with immobilized/restrained was changed. In general, a huge change between D&D3 and D&D4 was that effects are now controlled by game rules rather than trying to apply real world logic. So sleep spells work on the undead, poisons can slow you down in terms of movement without inhibiting your fighting ability, pole arms can be used at close range even when the monster is bear-hugging you, and so on. Some people didn't like the change, but it was consistent – no need for arbitrary GM interpretation of what works and what doesn't, the game rules say exactly what works. But teleportation would cancel being immobilized or restrained if it was a physical effect, but not if it was an effect on your mind or body. These terms were not defined in the game. The new rules say teleportation cancels being immobilized or restrained if it is an effect location in a specific square, such as a monster grab. I'm still not sure this is perfectly well clarified, but it is a big step in that direction.
The wizard's Orb of Imposition was totally nerfed; it now only gives a penalty to the next saving throw a monster makes against an effect. I feel the problem with the Orb was that it got proportionately better as you gained in levels, plus it was better when used on more powerful high-level status effects, plus you could combine it with other saving-throw penalty effects. When all of that combined, a high-level Orb wizard could totally neutralize a monster forever with a good attack. The change is good for game balance, it certainly fixes that. But I always felt that the Orb was conversely rather weak and disappointing at low levels, when the effect was weak and there weren't many choices to combine it with. Now I really feel like the power is disappointing at low levels.
Skill Challenges were changed so that "higher complexity" (longer) challenges are also harder. This is good and bad. Many sections of the original DMG rules implied that higher complexity challenges were harder to succeed at, when in fact they were not. So the new change fixes that problem. On the other hand, it isn't clear why a lengthier skill challenge should be harder to succeed at; it seems more intuitive to be able to decide the difficulty separately from deciding the length.
The Avenger's Armor of Faith ability was modified to work only with cloth armor, to make sure they wore cloth armor instead of upgrading to better armor. This is sensible, but what seems funny to me is that it was changed now instead of being that way all along. If the intent was for the class to wear cloth armor, why clearly specify that the Armor of Faith works with "light armor"? It seemed obvious to me the first time I saw the class that they would certainly want to spent the feat to get leather armor.
In the original Adventurer's Vault book, double weapons were introduced, and were so clearly superior to actually wielding two hand weapons that they supplanted that idea entirely, and made classes using two weapons, such as melee rangers and tempest fighters, much more effective. These have since been toned down to be less powerful, which seems good. The urgrosh changes were a bit odd. Before, the urgrosh was clearly superior to most of the other weapons, as it did the same damage if you attacked with both ends, but was better on attacks that only required attacking with the main end. Now the urgrosh has been made even better relative to the other weapons, but the two ends count as different weapon groups, making it harder to get bonuses from Weapon Expertise and similar feats. Odd, but I guess it is sort of appropriate for it to be the "most superior but hardest to use" of the double weapons.
The charge rule was clarified to work the way I had been playing it, that every square of movement during a charge must bring you closer to the opponent. The mount rules were rewritten, and the rules for move skills were clarified. The rules for flight were simplified even further, so that flying monsters don't have to worry about moving around in order to stay in the air.