I Come to Bury 4e, Not to Praise It

So it's been months  since the announcement of what Wizards of the Coast is calling "D&D Next". I meant to write a few posts listing my hopes and fears, but sadly real life has intervened thoroughly since then. Hopefully in the near future I'll get a chance to put together some thoughts and reactions to what Wizards, Monte Cook, et. al have been up to (most of it quite positive).

However, before I get around to diving into wild speculation on the future, I think it's worthwhile to take stock of where things currently stand. The announcement of a new "edition" of D&D has been met with a lot of excitement across the internet. Most people see it as a great opportunity to see some of the excellent trends from the latter half of 4e development rolled into the core of an even tighter, more compelling system. However, there are also a lot of people who see it simply as vindication from Wizards that D&D 4e was largely a disaster, or at the least that it's so broken that it's better to abandon now and start from scratch rather than patch and nurse onward like we saw with 3.5e. Wizards' constant talk about "uniting the editions" and their series of blog posts exploring more "old school" game mechanics seem to lend some support to that perspective. However, I'm not positive how much truth there is to that (I think the decision to break from 4e and create a new product has as much to do with a new approach to content creation and monetization as it does anything else) but I think that the "Edition Warriors" are very wrong if they think that 4e was a complete evolutionary dead end.

Yes, Fourth Edition has a lot of flaws -- some I would even call fundamental. Even the most charitable critic would have to admit that by default it has a very different focus than previous editions, and (without some adaptation on the part of the DM) tends to feel very different. But if there's one thing I've noticed from the plethora of great retrospective posts that have popped up since D&D Next's announcement, it's that none of the editions were perfect, and that all of them so far have made some great contributions that are worth noting and carrying forward. Fourth edition, in my mind, is very much among them.


Like many of the things I will mention, I have some problems with the shape powers take in 4e, but I don't want to spend time going into them here. My point is that fundamentally, powers are a great idea. Gone are the dozens of splatbooks full of class features and class variations that are just like the base classes except with different benefits at levels 3, 6, 9, etc. Want to play a rogue who focuses on acrobatics instead of stealth? What about one who is a thug that uses some dirty fighting to get the edge on his foes? Great, just pick your stats accordingly and grab select the powers you think suit your vision best. Want access to some feature from another class? OK, there are rules for how to do that by taking multiclass feats, balanced based on the strength of those powers. Powers provide a unified way for creating characters with interesting abilities of any class.

This isn't really anything new to 4e in particular -- Rogues always had sneak attack and Evasion, Clerics had turning and domain abilities (in addition to spells), and in 3e fighters had a whole host of feats specifically designed for them that served as kind of a proto-power system. But fourth edition did a very good job of consolidating those types of abilities under an umbrella for each class, and in simplifying the "1x/2x/3x-per-day" use system to an equally meaningful (but much easier to manage) "at-will/encounter/daily" system. The result is a character that's easier to run at a glance and requires far less book-keeping. Personally, I'd like to see this idea evolve quite a bit if it is carried into D&D Next (which I am certain it will be) but it's a solid step in the right direction.

Systemizing the Combat Space

Fourth Edition has gotten a ton of flack for being far too focused on initiative-ordered, on-the-grid combat at the expense of traditional dungeon crawling. Some people complain that it tries too hard to be a tactical miniatures game rather than an RPG. However, whatever your thoughts on it 4e deserves a lot of credit for making combat much smoother and easier to run.

Gone are the "five foot step" and tumble rolls. Every type of movement is either a "move" or a "shift"; forced movement is a "pull", a "push", or a "slide"; actions are simply "standard", "move", and "minor" or "free" (not including the variety interrupts). Status effects take one of a very few well-defined forms, all of which have abilities which may be keyed to their imposition. And damage types of all sorts are grouped into keywords that can be amplified, changed, attached, or removed to modify a power to whatever the designer wants to think is possible. All of this results in a system where different items and abilities can work together in a manner that is unambiguous with respect to the rules, and yet minimizes the amount of per-ability text. Some of this might make Fourth Edition seem more "game-y", but I think that it's really the result of simply clarifying the gamey elements already at the core of D&D and making the more rigorous so they work better.

Healing Surges

... And the resting system in general. This kind of goes along with the previous topic, but the idea of separating short term resources (hit points) from long term stamina (healing surges) is a great one because it allows for two layers of drama to play out. A fully rested party can be put in great danger because they've drained all their hitpoints and run out of surge powers for the encounter; likewise, a party might go on to win the battle, but then be so drained of surges that they may decide they've lost the war. Furthermore, making healing (via surges) cost a target resource instead of a healer resource means that healers don't have to make the hard choice between playing something interesting or maximizing their ability as a "hitpoint battery".

Likewise, subdividing rests into a "short" and "extended" form simply works great as a way to provide another hook for abilities to kick. Systems such as Lair Assault play around with the role short rests actually play, which works great for playing with the drama of combat by still allowing the DM to create back-to-back resource-taxing combats while at the same time still preserving the larger scale resource management of surges and powers. It's just plain smart, and there's nothing wrong with it that can't be fixed with some tweaking.

The DM Experience

No matter what someone says about 4e, if they complain that it makes the DM's job harder than they're just spouting nonsense. Player and Monster power was sliced, diced, and analyzed within an inch of its life, and Fourth Edition introduced a bunch of rules and guidelines for building encounters and creating entire monsters and challenges from scratch so that they fit seemlessly with the carefully authored content of the published modules. Admittedly, these guidelines needed some tweaking for "fun" and pace, but a bad guideline can at least be fixed. By contrast, creating monsters in 3e could  be a tremendous chore (and it could be almost impossible to judge if a given encounter was going to be a cakewalk or a bloodbath sometimes).

Wizards went out of their way to provide DMs with the tools they needed to create and run fun combats, and in my mind it's really paid off. Expanding the base of players is meaningless if you can't expand the number of DMs to service them. DMs are the lifeblood of the market, plain and simple. Anything that can make the average DM with 2 hours to prep before his friends show up produce content that's more fun and more compelling is a huge win, and the combination of power-based stat blocks and straightforward content generation systems helps push this in the right direction.


So yes, Fourth Edition has its warts. And to be honest, I'm quite glad to hear they're starting from a fresh base for D&D Next, because I'd rather see these good ideas put into a new system than see all the things I dislike carried forward or weeded out one-by-one. But there ARE things that I quite like about the current edition and I think that we should be keen to not throw the baby out with the bathwater just for nostalgia's sake.