Bad Impressions, Fourth Edition
On September 11, 2000, I posted on this site my first impressions of D&D 3rd Edition. Now, 8 years and change later, I thought I would post my impressions of D&D 4th Edition. These are not first impressions, however; these are based on my having played the game for several months now. They may very well incite a riot. Line forms on the right.
Ed. You may also wish to read this article for further thoughts about 4th Edition.
As you will be able to tell shortly, I do not think very highly of this game system. D&D is undoubtedly the world's most popular RPG, but I believe that's true in spite of, and not because of, its core system; further, I believe this has always been the case. Each of 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition and now 4th Edition have fixed things that were "broken" with the previous edition, but in so doing they managed to break other things. In this case, D&D has been made more accessible to gamers who are more familiar with MMOs, but in so doing the system has become less focused on role-playing, and more focused on combat mechanics and "powers."
It is of course possible to role-play quite excellently with this system, but then this has always been the case with any system. You can role-play with a deck of cards, or a Yahztee game, or with a pile of branches and a cardboard box. Skilled role-players will be able to overcome the limitations of any system. However, it is equally true in my opinion that a system can encourage and even improve role-play. I think FATE does this. I think Omni does this. I think Unknown Armies does this. As much as I hate it, I think to a degree Storyteller does this. I do not think that the 4th Edition ruleset does this. I think it encourages monotony and repetition in the same button-mashing way that WOW does.
The core rules do not facilitate or encourage role-playing
I think it was designed to do this, and at that it succeeds. I think it was also designed to be an excellent role-playing game, though, and at this it fails. No matter how much DM advice is offered, the core rules do not facilitate or encourage role-playing for players. These flaws can be overcome and worked around, but if you play RAW (Rules As Written) you are in for a struggle.
I defend my assertions with the following more specific observations based on actual gameplay over the past few months:
- Multiclassing sucks. It's not even worth doing. You can never be a true fighter/wizard, you can only be a fighter who can cast a spell, or a wizard who can pick up a sword. It feels like this system was designed to remove multi-classing, and they added this in at the last minute to toss a bone to the people who really wanted to do it.
- The system is no less complex than it ever was. Every combat round goes something like "I got a 13 plus 5 plus 3 plus 2 plus 1 plus this..." It's nonsense addition. To an extent D&D was always like this, but it seems to happen moreso now than ever. And yes, as with anything, a skilled group of role-players can have their character sheets in perfect order with everything added up beforehand, but in actual practice that never happens; something always gets missed, and there's always another +1 floating out there that you forgot to add in. This focus on addition leads to a subtraction of role-playing.
- Conditions are so numerous it is hard to keep track of them all, especially since so many powers cause 1-round long conditions and "save ends" conditions on mobs. We have ceramic tiles we stack beneath miniatures to represent conditions, and it gets ridiculous when there are three or four conditions on one guy. If we didn't use the tiles? There'd be no way to reliably remember which of the 15 miniatures on the board had which conditions applied to them that particular round. It's a constant juggling act.
The system is so balanced that it has lost some of the thrill
- The system is so balanced that it has lost some of the thrill. Every encounter, if balanced perfectly, takes an hour. Every. Single. Time. Further, because of the way the numbers are balanced, there's very little risk of death, which is a problem in a game where combat and grinding through dungeons is the focus. Sure, sure, I believe that it's possible for a DM to kill some characters now and again, and sure, they can occasionally get a string of bad rolls and die, but most of the time, 99% of the time, you'll get down to about half your hit points and 25% of your powers and then the last guy will fall. There's no sense of risk. If you play the cards in the right order, you always narrowly succeed any balanced encounter. In previous editions, there were flaws and imbalances all over the place, but that unpredictability - while occasionally unfair - made things more fun.
- Stupid arbitrary nonsensical MMO style restrictions for the sake of perfect balance. For example, armor. Paladins can wear plate but fighters and clerics can't. Um. Sure. OK. Whatever. Or powers. There was always a reason wizards ran out of spells - they forgot them. But let's take rogues - the rogue can use Deft Strike and Piercing Strike at will, but after the rogue does one Trick Strike, he can't do another one that day. Why? Does the rogue forget how to stab? Does he get too tired to stab? Maybe he's bored with that one? The ranger can only do Split the Tree once per day. Does she suddenly forget how to shoot two arrows at once? Why? No reason. That's just the way the system works. Daily powers "take a significant toll on your physical and mental processes." Right. "You're reaching into the deepest reserves of energy to pull off an amazing exploit." Nonsense. It's silly reasoning to support an attempt to perfectly balance every class the same way.
- False choice. You do the same thing in the same sequence in almost every combat. 1. Use encounter powers. 2. Use at will powers unless you are in trouble, then 3. Use daily powers. There's no reason not to do them in this order. Your encounter powers might as well get used right away to thin the ranks, and the daily powers need to get saved for when you need them. Worse, many powers have nearly the exact same effects even though they have different names and descriptions, providing a false impression of more variety.
Put tab A into slot B because it fits
Take my paladin. In any given round, my paladin can use the following at will: Holy Strike, which has a +7 to hit and does 1d10+4 radiant damage plus my wisdom modifier (+2) in additional damage, or I can do Enfeebling Strike, which has a +9 to hit and does 1d10+6 damage and gives the creature -2 to attack. Are there differences? Yes. One does radiant damage (extra damage to some creatures), and one has a slightly better chance to hit (+2) and debuffs the enemy for -2 for a round. Are these significant differences? No. In most combats, both of my at-will powers have pretty much the same practical effect. I do the same exact damage (1d10+6 vs 1d10+4+2) and I have a +2 better to hit with Enfeebling Strike. Fighting undead? Use Holy Strike. Not fighting undead? Use Enfeebling Strike, over and over and over. This is not choice or variety; it's a game mechanic. Put tab A into slot B because it fits; doing anything else is mathematically stupid.
Counter-argument: "You took the wrong powers." Rebuttal: "If there are wrong power combinations to choose, then the system is broken even worse, and there's even less variety truly offered. If there's only one or two correct builds then don't pretend to give me 100 choices where there are really only a handful."
Counter-argument 2: "There will be better powers offered in future books." Rebuttal: "I won't be buying those books. I wanted a cool game, not a template upon which cool things could be built in the future."
An argument could also be made that the inclusion of these powers for every class makes the game more dynamic by giving every class flashy cool things to do in every round, like the wizard always could. The flaw in the thinking there is the presumption that fighters, rogues, clerics and others never did anything interesting before. When you didn't have specific power cards to call upon, you had to think creatively. The rogue would sneak around for a backstab and set up traps while the fighter swung from the chandelier and the ranger tried to split the rope with a carefully aimed shot. And while the system allows stunting like that, in practice nobody does it because the mathematics for the specific cool powers are more certain. You are subtly encouraged not to think outside of the box because the box is so comfortable and predictable. Connect the dots. Press the hotkeys. Rinse and repeat.
- Related to the above: the death of the basic melee attack. The character sheet has a slot for it, but you never use it. Why use a basic attack when the at-will power has a slightly better to-hit and damage? You never swing a sword at someone; you always do a Super At-Will Strike of some sort.
- Feats are either wholly useless, or only add in situational modifiers. Almost every member of my group is considering taking Improved Initiative at level 6 because there are no other enticing options. I have Raven Queen's Blessing as a paladin which lets me heal someone whenever I drop an enemy to 0 or less. The problem with that? As the tank, I almost never strike the killing blow - it's always the ranger, rogue or warlock doing that since they do way more damage than me. So I have a thematically appropriate feat that I am thinking of swapping out because I have never used it, in fact never been able to use it. Many of the feats add something like +1 to damage for specific types of attacks, but in a game where the strikers can do 30-40 damage in one hit, +1 damage is meaningless.
There is no substantial change; just the appearance of change
- By far, the worst part of the system for me is the treadmill feel of it all - this again has always been present in D&D but feels worse now. You and your group are always fighting things perfectly balanced for your group, so this means that all that changes is the numbers go up at each level. You get a little harder to hit, and the monsters scale to have an equivalently better chance to hit you. You get more hit points, they do a little bit more damage. Etc. If level 1 guy has 15 hit points and level 10 guy has 150 hit points, it's the same exact thing if the level 1 foe does 5 damage per hit and the level 10 foe can do 50 damage in a hit. Your Will save went up? Too bad the monster's chance to overcome that Will save also went up by an equivalent amount. There is no substantial change; just the appearance of change, and a few more encounter powers and daily powers to throw around.
All of the above are no doubt meant to make the game more balanced, accessible and fair, and I will admit that they do just that. They might even make D&D a better game. But they do not make it a better role-playing game. Maybe a board game, maybe a card game, maybe a war game. But not a role-playing game. These features do not encourage role-playing, free-thinking and creativity. They don't stifle it, but they don't help it along either. And to that extent, D&D 4th Edition is not a step forward for RPGs. At best, it's a step to the side, into an adjacent dimension.
All that said, I allow that two things are possible. First, that my group - despite playing Rules As Written - has managed to completely screw up the rules. I find this unlikely. But hey, it's possible. Second, that the game changes significantly when you hit level 6 or 7 or 8 or 10 or 20, and suddenly gets awesome. I find this unlikely as well, but in the event that it is the case, I would argue that this is unacceptable for Wheel of Time reasons. Meaning, people keep telling me that if you can make it through the first few books, the series suddenly gets really good. From where I stand, it's not worth the slog to get to the good stuff, when there's good stuff to be found elsewhere.
I hear good things about Pathfinder. Maybe I'll give that a shot next.