Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 1

Having completed my 140-session D&D 4e campaign (I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this last time; I’m still proud, shut up), what have I learned? While I’m done with the system, perhaps you aren’t. So let me be your guide. We’ll take a look at 4e itself in this post, and then at the ideas in this blog pertaining to it in the followup. In no particular order…

Combat is king

I’ve said it so many times in this blog, but it bears repeating. 4e is a game about combat. That’s what most if not all character abilities describe, that’s how the system lets the characters interact with the world. This doesn’t mean the stories you tell with it start and end there, but combat should play a significant part in them, otherwise you may wish to find another system. No, really. Combat is where 4e excels. There are so many other games out there that excel at other things.

What’s more, it’s a game about set-piece combat. It doesn’t handle deviation from kick-down-the-door style of play very well. It is combat-as-sport, not combat-as-war. It’s useful for both GM and players to acknowledge this, and play accordingly.

…Unless it’s not about combat

We’ve had multiple sessions focused on exploration and negotiation, when we didn’t even roll dice. The character sheets were used as an inspiration for what characters can do. Would we have benefited from a system that could offer some useful rules for this? Sure. And had these games been the focus of the campaign, we would have used something else. But we played with what we had, and it worked. The lesson here is not to get fixated on the character sheet and the fact that powers only have combat application written up. Thunderwave still pushes everything away. Cleric still glows with holy light. Skills are incredibly broad on purpose.

Balance is a fickle beast

4e is much more balanced than its predecessors, sure. And as anyone who’s actually played it knows, this attention to balance does not preclude it from having truly different classes and unique characters. Hm. Sorry, that’s not the topic being discussed, but I still get riled up when I see people claim 4e is homogeneous and boring, and they still do. Moving on. 4e is balanced, and its focus on “fair fight” helps a lot. But it’s still very much breakable, especially at higher levels. There aren’t that many single rules elements such as feats/powers/etc that are broken by themselves – regular errata saw to that. Instead, it’s the ability to pile on multiple benefits on a single element, all individually quite reasonable, that makes it overpowered. One of our characters didn’t need to roll to succeed on a hard Arcana check. Against another, a natural 20 on the attack wouldn’t score a critical hit, because it wasn’t enough to hit him normally. And once things get to that point, they cease being fun. This is not a failing of 4e in particular, it is a problem common to most complex systems.

It helps a lot when players and GM are in it to have fun, not to compete with each other. That’s a good starting point in general, of course. But in this case, as players gain system mastery, they may learn to self-censor, abstaining from abilities or ability combinations that would ruin the game by trivializing combat. Curb-stomping every single encounter gets stale very quickly. Before that happens, though, I’d urge you to agree with the players on the following: you, the GM, can disallow abilities or ability combination on the grounds of “You do what to my monsters? That’s stoopid.” It should never be done to punish the players for succeeding, and there is a very fine line between a character being awesome and a character being broken. How to find this line?

Know the characters

You don’t need to know every last thing about the PCs’ abilities. But when a player brings a new character to the table, ask them what that character does. Let them describe how they expect the character to handle combat, what their stand-out abilities are. The player who has just spent some time laboriously coming up with these abilities will have a much clearer idea than what you’d glean from reading their character sheet. If something seems too much to you, discuss it with them. When in doubt, agree to see how the abilities work out in play. You could be overreacting. If not, the player will see your point for themselves.

All that being said, you’d probably want to personally vet any material from Dragon that players want to use, just in case.

Tailor encounters to the party

By knowing strengths and weaknesses of characters, you can craft encounters suited to them. If the PCs have multiple ways of getting rid of save-ends effects, don’t expect a monster whose main danger lies in a save-ends effect to be much of a challenge, and plan accordingly. This monster can still be used to underscore just how awesome the characters are. At the same time, if the party has no mobility and little ranged firepower, presenting them with an encounter against slowing centaur archers in the wilderness is only going to lead to frustration. Always try to make sure everyone has something to do, some way to contribute. In the centaur example, give the slow fighter some gnomes to pound on.

Endless escalation

As the GM, you have unlimited power. In the competition with the players, you can always escalate. And as they build stronger characters, you will have to, to keep it interesting. Tougher monsters, painful status effects, challenging terrain – all is fair play. Problem is, in response to facing tougher threats, players will escalate too. They’ll pick the abilities they believe necessary to meet the next challenge. It is a vicious cycle in which the game is the loser – it can’t handle being taken that far, and will inevitably collapse into an un-enjoyable mess. Only good understanding between players and GM can avoid this. Again, remember: you’re all in it together to have fun.

Enjoy losing

And speaking of having fun. You’re playing to lose. Your monsters are there to suffer. Your villains are there to fail. Every now and then, when PCs make poor choices and dice are against them, the villain may win. The threat of failure has to have teeth. But that should be a rare occurrence. So don’t get attached to your monsters, your villains and your schemes. Be a fan of player characters. This is heroic fantasy, and they are the heroes.

Monsters got better with time

By all that is holy, use updated monster math from MM3. And new monsters from MM3 onwards. They are just so much better, a clear example of designers learning the game they’ve designed. If you’re feeling particularly nasty, use proportional level 1 monster math – that’s what I’ve resorted to for levels 25 onwards, and still haven’t killed anyone. Not for longer than a round, anyway.

Missing is no fun

No, really. Failure is boring in D&D. So while it may be tempting to make your BBEG 5 levels higher than the party, don’t. Keep it within 2 levels of them, and instead add some minions or environmental hazards.

On the technical side of things

Get DDI subscription. It’s worth it. I don’t know what will happen to it with the advent of D&D Next, but hopefully the online tools will continue being available in some fashion. Adventure tools have their quirks, and compendium could have better filter options, but I can’t imagine preparing for a game without them. And neither can I imagine building a character without character builder.

If I may offer one suggestion to the designers of these tools though, on the off-chance they’ll see this, and perhaps implement it in the tools for Next. Since there already exists a unique online profile for each user, let us mark individual items in the database that we never wish to see again, until they get errata’d. There is so much crap there, just taking up space, that we have to navigate each time we look for something usable. As a bonus, you’d get a very good summary of not just what we use, but also what we don’t. If most of the players hate a feat, perhaps its due for an overhaul.

Magic items are terrible

Just… terrible. There are too many, and most of them are uber-specialized, meant not just for one class, but for a specific sub-class. Most are also plain bad, too situational or too weak. Going through this deluge of worthless crap to find something exciting to show your players is a thankless chore. Having players create their wishlists helps, but doesn’t solve the issue. In addition, having 11+ slots to put magic items into means that everyone will do their best to have 11+ magic items. How can any item be magical, memorable and exciting, if you have 50 or more of them among the party? I’d suggest using inherent bonuses and only giving out a magic item when the story demands it.

Epic levels are a mess

They are too much. Too many abilities, too many opportunities to synergise, too many choices to make each round, too many things to keep track of. The only reason to play at epic tier is if you’ve started at level 1 and went all the way to 30. The experience epic tier offers is not fundamentally different from that at lower levels. In fact, the only thing it offers is complexity. And that’s its problem: it starts at the reasonable heroic tier, and continues to be exactly the same game, just bigger. It doesn’t work. Warlord that used to give +3 to attacks now gives +6 and a reroll. Wizard that used to push his target 3 squares pushes them 7. But the basic math, the basic logic of the game remains unchanged. Imagine an epic-tier chess game, where all pawns have been replaced with queens, because they’ve levelled up in previous games.

Everyone becomes a Nightcrawler

No, really. By the time the PCs become epic, they have numerous ways with which to teleport at-will. And gain benefits each time they teleport. In a game about tactical combat, the designers gave up on tactical movement. Plus it looks ridiculous. To the above example of epic chess, add the fact that all the rooks now also teleport. Bamf.

So there you have it

Know what the game is and what it expects of you. Don’t try to use it for something that it can’t do. Work together to tell a story in which PCs are heroes. Have fun.

2 thoughts on “Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 1

  1. Well, while most of your post can be summarized as “Both GM and players have to play the same game, and this game is not a Versus Deathmatch”, and I hive nothing to object in general.

    However the link you provided for combat-as-sport is a pretty one-sided point of view. The author, in short, tells us that DnD 4 is for honest sportsmen while 3.5 is for retarded power-mad out-of-the-world freaks. Which is not true.
    The pretence to 4E is that it sacrifices too much in its attempt to be the game of tactical combat (at which it may shine, but however). And for low-level play DnD 4 is quite a good system as it offers good tactical engine with relative simplicity.

    But.
    The point of 3.5 is not to invent some crazy plans about attracting penguin sodomites so that they attack pedo bears, and players then will attack the surviving side thus emerging victorious.
    The point is to have character what you like and then play with it. And 4E is more restrictive, and also relies to much on teamplay.

    • While it’s been a while since I’ve read the combat-as-sport post, I didn’t get that impression from it. It seemed to favor 3.5 while acknowledging 4e’s quirks. Anyway.

      Yes, 4e is much more limited. You *will* play an adventurer, and a part of a party at that. Absolutely. However, due to its focus, it actually makes sure you’ll be a competent adventurer, a hero. If that’s what the game is about – great. If the game is not about adventuring, not about dungeons and dragons – well, a different system would suit better.

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