Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Back when I designed the original edition of ForeSight I considered myself a “scholar” of role-playing game rules (in the rather strong sense that Gordon R. Dickson uses the word “scholar” in Tactics of Mistake). I’d pored through virtually every set of RPG rules ever published (such a thing was still possible then) and at least had a pretty good idea of how each game system “worked” … or, more frequently, failed to.

D&D's mechanics were originally based on TSR's "Chainmail"
D&D's mechanics were originally based on TSR's "Chainmail"

The original role-playing game was Dungeons & Dragons. It shipped as three booklets in a small format box — I’m guessing because TSR (the publisher) was able to publish small-format booklets especially cheaply. The three booklets were called Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Wilderness Adventures. As I recall, the first book more-or-less covered character creation and game mechanics (most of which weren’t explained at all — you needed to be taught to play the game by someone who already knew, or get a copy of the legendary “Perrin Conventions” — it’s possible that someone who knew how to play Chainmail — the game it was based on — would have understood the rules better, but most of TSR’s rules were utterly incomprehensible, so this is doubtful). the second covered (as you’d expect) monsters and treasure, and the third book was basically useless. (Maybe it had random encounter tables or something.)

This is the cover of "Men & Magic", one of three booklets that made up the original D&D rules.

These books were followed by four expansions (thicker booklets in the same format): Greyhawk was the first and by far the most useful as it expanded the rules to the point of usefulness: different weapons did different damage; in the original rules all weapons did d6 damage; virtually all the “classic” magic items (e.g. “vorpal blade”) were introduced; the most popular character classes (e.g. Paladin); the best known monsters (e.g. various kinds of dragon, beholders, and so on). Blackmoor was essentially two new character classes (monk and assassin) and a not-very-interesting dungeon, Eldritch Wizardry (with a naked woman on the cover) added druids, psionics, and demons, and finally Gods, Demigods, and Heroes added exactly what you’d expect. At this point — and assuming you could figure out how to play the game at all — D&D was pretty much complete, and everything since then has been reorganization and rewriting.

The Original "Dungeon Masters Guide" (the cover art looks pretty bad at this size; it's positively awful close up; of the first three books, only the "Players Handbook" had professional quality cover art)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons started out as the Monster Manual — essentially an alphabetic reorganization of around 300 various “monsters” from the original rules and some other places (e.g. Dragon magazine). It was almost certainly not planned because a huge portion of what ought to have gone in the Monster Manual ended up as appendices of the Dungeon Masters Guide. The Players Handbook described all the core character classes, and Deities & Demigods completed AD&D’s replacement of the original rules. Eventually TSR realized that to make more money it would need to publish more rulebooks, and ideally these books should give anyone who owned them cooler stuff than people who didn’t own them got, so we got a bevy of new rulebooks featuring ridiculously overpowered character classes, stupidly conceived monsters, magic items, and so on.

AD&D was — if anything — more disorganized, self-contradictory, and incomprehensible than the original rules, and the huge array of add-ons only made it worse. Meanwhile, a rival group within TSR created a different series of Dungeons & Dragons rules — culminating in a version¬†considered by many to be the best version of the rules ever), Second Edition AD&D, and D&D 3rd Edition, D&D Edition 3.5, and now D&D 4th Edition. There appears to be a pretty complete history on Wikipedia (of course).

Through all of these incarnations, D&D has more-or-less retained some core concepts, such as character class, level, armor class, d20 resolution, polyhedral dice, alignments, experience through killing, stealing from the dead for income and upgrades. Some concepts have been added (feats, secondary skills), and some have been changed hither and thither (multi-classing), but D&D was and remains a game primarily inspired by Tolkien (and secondarily by Howard, Leiber, and Vance) where any character from Tolkien (or Howard, Leiber, or Vance) is impossible to legally represent or create. Indeed, even Gary Gygax’s own fictional characters won’t legally fit into D&D.

Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is a role-playing game?

A role-playing game is ostensibly a game in which one puts oneself in the place of an imaginary character in a story. The story is laid out by the “Dungeon Master” (or “DM”, or “Game Master” in any other game) and one or more players each take the role(s) of one or more characters. The idea is that the DM describes the situation that characters are in, the players — imagining themselves to be those characters — describe what they want to do, the DM then decides how the situation changes (using the rules or just making it up) and we repeat.

It follows as a corollary of this that a set of role-playing rules is — effectively — simulating the “physics” of the imaginary world the DM and players are sharing. So, to “place onself in the role of a character” in that imaginary world, one must either assume the world acts much like some world (like the real world, or a fictional world) we understand pretty well, or one must know the rules inside out and be able to imagine the world they simulate (whatever that happens to be).

The problem with D&D was and continues to be that the rules in no way, shape, or form simulate the world as we know it, or any well-known fictional setting (e.g. Middle Earth) and furthermore the rules are ridiculously convoluted (the word “complex” is not strictly applicable — they’re simple, but there are a buttload of them and they are highly prone to be contradictory and/or badly written) so divining what the world they simulate must be like is virtually impossible. What D&D tends to be, as a result, is a world that looks — superficially — like a fictional world we might know and love, but where no sane person in that world would behave as expected — given how the world actually works — but they do anyway.

But let us put all of this aside and ponder the question of whether D&D4 is actually a good game.

Classes

One of D&D’s core ideas is that of character classes. Every character is a member of a character class which essentially determines what that character can do. Originally this was enormously simplifying — each character class had a very limited and well-defined set of abilities, and there was little or no flexibility. As of AD&D 2nd Edition there was virtually no difference in capabilities between any two characters of a given class and level aside from their magic items.

The key problem with character classes is that players want to feel their character is more than a generic blob festooned with magic items. Worse, if you actually want to create a particular character from fiction or your imagination, the character you want to play is seldom well-represented by a character class.

Over the years (and editions) D&D has tried to address this in two ways — increasing the number of character classes to better match various stereotypes (e.g. the “ranger” class was added to better represent someone like “Aragorn”), and making character classes more flexible (e.g. allowing characters to learn skills and feats, multi-classing, two-classing, and mix-and-match classing). Indeed, many other game systems have tried to make character classes “work” (as in allow you to create the characters you want while keeping things simpler than pure skill-based systems), and they’ve all pretty much failed — skill-based systems like RuneQuest, Hero System, GURPS, and DragonQuest are (or were, in the case of DQ) enormously simpler and more flexible than D&D3 or later, Chivalry & Sorcery (any edition), or Rolemaster (and Rolemaster simply uses character classes to give you hit points and skill points). This is because all of them end up bolting one or more skill systems onto the side of a class system — guaranteeing extra complexity.

D&D4’s approach to classes is to provide a pretty large number (the core rules provide eight classes, and this doesn’t include monk, druid, illusionist, or bard) and to make them pretty flexible (e.g. you can obtain feats which allow you to mix-in abilities from other classes) but not as flexible or fiddly as D&D3’s mix-and-match classes (which didn’t work very well) or as flat out broken as multi-classing and two-classing were in earlier editions.

More than any earlier edition of D&D, all classes in D&D4 work pretty much exactly the same way. The difference between a fighter and a wizard is that a fighter casts “spells” that require a weapon while a wizard casts “spells” that require an “implement” (the designers of D&D4 have an absolute tin ear for naming).

For me, there’s a huge problem with the way the rules now work in that conceptually skills and spells have always been very different. If I — say — know how to bonk someone on the head with a shield it stands to reason that I can bonk as many heads with my shield as I like until I drop from exhaustion (or friends of my victims restrain me). But in D&D4, such a “skill” would be represented by a “spell”-like ability which could only be employed once per encounter or day. It’s pretty bad — one of the highest level abilities available to rogues (level 29, once per day) is essentially a hamstring attack. (Yup, at level 29 wizards get meteor swarm and rogues get a hamstring attack.) The only way to tell high level spells apart from high level abilities is that the “spells” are named “spell” or “prayer” or somesuch, and the “abilities” suck.

Hit Points & Healing Surges

One very simple and welcome improvement in D&D4 is that level has a much smaller (and non-random) effect on hit points. Your starting hit points are simply constitution + a value based on class (e.g. 12 for rogues and rangers). And you simply gain a (fairly small) fixed number of hit points when you go up a level (e.g. 5 for rogues and rangers). Damage output doesn’t tend to scale dramatically upward either, so — for example — meteor swarm does 8d6 + Int bonus damage (versus some stupendously higher amount in earlier editions).

Correction: monsters cannot as a rule use healing surges. The following paragraphs have been changed to eliminate incorrect comments based on my missing a vital paragraph in the rules.

One thing that outright shocked me looking at the sample adventure in the DM’s Guide was the hit point values for low level monsters. Level 1 kobolds with 29 hit points! If you look at a typical (shield-using) fighter, he/she will be doing d8 + 3 damage (maybe) on a hit, and hitting maybe 50% of the time. It’s going to take four hits to take down one kobold (an offensive fighter build will do better). (There are 1hp kobold “minions” to make hordes of easily killed kobolds a possibility — somewhat reminiscent of Bushido and Aftermath’s “extras”.)

“Healing Surges” are a new (as far as I know) concept in D&D4, and one of its most MMORPGish features. A typical character gets a sizable number of healing surges per day — 5-9 + Con bonus, with all kinds of extras from feats and the like. A healing surge basically restores 25% of your max hp, and you can perform one per encounter (fight) — by performing a “second wind” standard action (which also confers +2 defense) — and as many as you like between fights.

So, it looks like D&D4 fights are going to be drawn out. This is perhaps good if you like wargaming fights (and D&D4 seems like a pretty solid wargame — more on this later) but not so great if you view fights as being essentially a necessary evil that interrupts plot advancement. But, I guess if you look at role-playing that way you probably aren’t interested in D&D.

Constitution used to have a huge impact on character hp totals. It now has very little effect — one point of Con gives you one hp (vs. level/2 hps). But the real advantage of Con is you get one extra healing surge (i.e. 25% of your hp total as self-healing) per 2 points of Con. This probably makes Con¬†even more important than it was in the past — i.e. one point of Con is now worth +12.5% hps vs. level/2 hps.

Almost all healing has been redefined in terms of healing surges, e.g. clerics can hand out “free healing surges” pretty much like candy during fights. One of the interesting side effects of this redesign is that a low level healer can be of huge benefit to a high level character (a 10th level fighter is likely to have 90 or so hit points, so a healing surge is worth 22hp) — whereas in the past a low level healer would have been useless to a high level character.

On the other hand it would seem that healers are much less necessary than they used to be (although clerics are so overpowered, why wouldn’t you want them anyway?). To begin with, any player character can regain full health in a day without healing (in the “good old days” it used to take months to recover full health without healers or potions) — this would make the implied D&D world very strange indeed. (Even trash mobs have one healing surge per day, so a mortally wounded nobody can be full health in four days. Strange world. Maybe we assume that healing surges only exist for player characters and anyone near them… but then PCs could make good money just by visiting sick people…)

Note: the rules are not explicit on the user of healing surges outside of combat by NPCS and monsters, so it’s a bit of an open question (perhaps resolved somewhere I haven’t found) as to the effects of healing surges on the “implied universe”. However, it’s very easy to pick up the healing skill (any character can grab it as a feat at level 2), so we can assume that healers are common and so the availability of healing surges to the general populace is high.

What D&D4 conspicuously fails to do is make higher level characters better at preserving their hit points. You still can’t parry or “actively resist” worth a damn. Oh well, maybe D&D5…

Attributes, Powers, “Spells”, Skills, Feats

D&D4 divides the things a character can do into — broadly speaking — four categories.

Attributes (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) are your traditional six numbers, which determine your bonuses. But, in a radical departure from earlier editions, instead of key capabilities (the ability to hit things, saving throws, etc.) being implemented as “virtual skills” which are determined by a character’s class(es) and level(s), all actions are attribute rolls which receive the attribute bonus ( (score-10)/2 ) plus level/2.

(The way attributes work has been further modified to pair the attributes — Str with Con, Dex with Int, and Wis with Cha — so that each feeds into one of the three defenses — Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Fortitude, Reflex, and Will work exactly like AC now, so hitting someone with a sword is more like hitting someone with a spell, making the character classes seem even more flavorless, and making defense even more passive. It also has the rather undesirable side-effect of penalizing classes — notably fighter-types — who need two attributes in one pair (Str + Con).)

Powers are things you can do by virtue of being a member of your character class. These seem to be fairly perfunctory on the whole, and indeed the designers seem to have gone to some lengths to come up with things they can call “powers” to put in those sections of the class descriptions. E.g. clerics get a power called “healing word” which confers a wisdom bonus on health restored by any spell with the word “healing” in its name. Surely it would have been simpler to put the bonus into the spell definitions. Now, arguably, someone attempting to use feats to mix-in cleric abilities to their class might now need an extra feat to obtain that bonus, but … it just seems unnecessarily convoluted to me.

Spells (note: I use the word “spells” facetiously — they’re referred to variously as “class features”, “exploits”, “prayers”, etc. based on class, but they all work the same way, which is pretty much the way “spells” worked in older editions of D&D) are the meat of each character class description. Instead of being levels 1 through 9, they’re now listed as the level at which they become available: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 22, 23, 25, 27, 29. (Note that this is much finer-grained than in “the good old days” — a Good Thing — and that the designers give out new abilities on odd-numbered levels to make up for new feats arriving on even-numbered levels, attribute bonuses arriving on levels which are multiples of 4, and (massive!) tier-bonuses on levels 11 and 21. So you get something nice every time you go up a level.

Spells are available “at will” (you can just do them as often as you like), once per “encounter”, once after “resting” (a slightly more restrictive version of once per encounter), and once per “day”. Orthogonal to how often you can use spells, some are classified as “utility” meaning they are picked from a different pool of points. The provision of “at will” spells is a huge improvement over earlier editions — yes, you can now be like “Tim the Enchanter” and just nuke stuff constantly… — but you only ever get two and they don’t improve with level (an obvious omission — why not allow characters to use “encounter” abilities ten levels lower “at will”… By level 10 a character will have 2 “at will”, 3 “encounter”, 3 “utility”, and 3 “daily” spells. (And again, note that this applies to every class, not just casters.)

Skills are broadly defined sets of abilities (much broader than in the past — think DragonQuest not RuneQuest) that characters can obtain based on class. E.g. the “Thievery” skill covers picking locks, disarming traps, and picking pockets, while “Athletics” covers jumping, swimming, and climbing (yes, at last, fighters can actually climb and sneak!). All abilities within a skill are driven by the same bonus, so all athletics tasks are driven by Strength (yup, weightlifters make the best climbers)… It’s pretty annoying that rogues can’t climb as well as fighters, and of course strength driving climbing is just stupid, but this isn’t GURPS — we left realism behind a long time ago so there’s no point picking nits. Sadly, skills get very short shrift from the rules — Diplomacy receives one paragraph and no concrete examples at all.

Instead of buying individual skills and skill levels (a promising trend in D&D3), skills are once again something you have or have not, and you simply get to use attribute checks to use them (receiving a +5 bonus for actually having the skill). This makes higher level characters pretty good at everything (I mean … ridiculously good at everything) even without the “Jack of All Trades” feat (+2 at all untrained skills). Much like Chivalry & Sorcery (at least, the last edition I looked at), there’s no point trying to be really good at anything unless you’re also ridiculously high level — an Int 18 chef with the cooking skill (if there were a cooking skill) will get +9 at level 1, while a level 20 with Int 9 who has never seen the inside of a kitchen will get +10. This, of course, horribly undermines the premise that “even a level 1 character is heroic” compared to ordinary people.

Finally, feats are essentially masturbation with the game system. Each feat tends to allow you to diddle with the rules in some slightly beneficial way (a +1 modifier here or there, get an extra this or swap X for Y, or avoid this penalty in this situation) or allow you to do some cute trick that a more “realistic” game system lets pretty much anyone do.

If all of this sounds (a) really complicated, and (b) disturbingly similar to MMORPGs, I’d have to agree, and then point out the rules for respeccing retraining built right into the character advancement system. Each time you go up a level you’re able to swap out an ability slot (forget thievery, learn diplomacy). (Imagine explaining such a change in a story… “Well I used to know how to pick locks, but I’m afraid I completely forgot how when I decided to learn the intricacies of diplomacy upon ascending to level 8.”)

Tiers

D&D4 allows for thirty levels of character advancement divided — for no particularly good reason — into three “tiers” named “heroic” (levels 1-10 — that’s right, everyone’s a hero), “paragon” (levels 11-20), and “epic” (levels 21-30). This entire idea is at once central to the game rules (e.g. when you become a “paragon” you get to further specialize your character class, and most “at will” abilities get much better when you hit level 21) and something of an afterthought (a lot of “epic” abilities seem pretty humdrum — e.g. most level 29 fighter/ranger/rogue abilities seem like something any reasonably competent guy could do).

Armor Class

I’ve heard that there’s been a long standing desire on the part of D&D’s designers to fix the single stupidest rule in D&D (armor makes you harder to hit) but every time they try it, it gets rejected by players. D&D4 does continue the trend of balancing agility (wear light armor and dodge) over simply dressing head to foot in plate (you now not only get no Dex bonus if you’re wearing medium or heavier armor, but there are skill check penalties for wearing heavier kinds of armor). This is both cruder and less annoying than D&D3’s “Dex cap” (where each kind of armor had a maximum bonus for Dexterity — now you just get to pick whether you’re gonna dodge or not). Shields continue to have a negligible effect on AC (although — interestingly — they now have the same negligible effect on Reflex defense).

Overall, though, I’d have to say that turning saving throws into another form of Armor Class is something of a retrograde step — and it underlines what a silly mechanic Armor Class is in the first place.

Saving Throws

Fortitude, Reflex, and Will are the (saner) replacements for “save vs poison”, “save vs. wands”, and “save vs. spell” in the original D&D and AD&D rules. Characters now have a passive defense value (10 + Fortitude bonus for Fortitude) and can make saving throws in the same category. In general, you use the passive defense value when being attacked, and saving throws to get out of something you’re in, or shrug off an effect that’s already on you. It follows that there might be some cases where you might make an “Armor Check” (i.e. actively roll using you armor bonus) to resolve some things, and this does appear to be the case. It follows that AC, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will all work exactly the same way now. This may not be a Good Thing in terms of realism, but it does reduce the number of mechanics you need to learn, and the number of die rolls needed during fights.

The Wargame

If you accept D&D’s basic mechanics — in particular their limitations and lack of realism — for what they are, the combat sequence of play in D&D4 is essentially a cleaned up version of what they were trying to do in D&D3.x.

Each round every character gets a turn in initiative order (Dex rolls — highest goes first). Each turn comprises a standard action, a move action, and a minor action. A standard action may be converted into a move action, and a move action can be converted into a minor action (so you can instead perform two moves and a minor action, one move and two minor actions, a standard action and two minor actions, or three minor actions). A standard action is typically an attack or the use of a special ability of some kind (e.g. casting most spells). A move action is what you’d think. And a minor action is something like unsheathing a weapon. Moving away from or past an armed character exposes you to opportunity attacks.

Where D&D4 shines is in its solid definitions and explanations of pre-emptive and reactive interruption, triggers, and opportunity actions. It could probably be better, but it’s pretty darn good. This is a really solid sequence of play that can cope with delicate situations (e.g. hostages at gun … er crossbow … point).

D&D4 also handles cover, the distinction between line-of-sight and line-of-attack (e.g. you can blind fire through smoke, etc.), and rigidly defines everything in terms of an ugly-but-convenient 5′ grid. (I’d argue that Foresight’s 1m grid is better for one important reason — it lets you represent the extra reach of long weapons better. Very few melee weapons — and the sarissa and lance aren’t sensible weapons for adventurers to use — let you strike someone 7.5-10′ away, but many let you strike at someone 1.5-2m away. Hex grids are obviously superior to square grids, but they’re also a pain in the ass.)

Perhaps my least favorite feature of the D&D combat system is that it abstracts facing out of the game. Your facing is simply ignored. I can see the argument that if a guy is being attacked by two assailants on opposite sides he/she won’t simply face one and not the other, but whirl around and try to handle both. OK. But what if he/she regards one as being simply irrelevant and does choose to just deal with one (e.g. he/she may think one is just an illusion, or dismiss one as relatively harmless, or simply think it safer to concentrate on taking one down)?

It seems to me that D&D4’s combat system is still one notch too “abstract” for my taste, but — core mechanics aside — it’s a very solid combat system for what it is.

Game Balance

The classic game balance argument in D&D has been (a) which is more ridiculously overpowered, clerics or monks? and (b) just how f*cked are rogues/assassins?

Based purely on reading the rules, it seems to me pretty clear that clerics are as overpowered as ever (e.g. the two level 29 cleric “daily” attack spells are an AoE that does more damage than meteor swarm (the most powerful standard wizard attack) and a melee attack that does as much damage as the equivalent fighter attack — all this while being able to toss around heals like candy). I’m not sure I’m going to pay for the rulebook that contains monks to find out if they’ve made out as well.

As for rogues/assassins — most of their best abilities are now available to other character classes (indeed, via feats, they all are — you can make a backstabbing paladin if you want to). On the other hand, rogues can drive both their AC and attacks with Dexterity, which means a rogue will no longer (a) be unable to hit anything (as per pretty much every earlier edition of D&D) or (b) be very easy to hit. And the change in hit point formulae means that rogues will tend to have roughly 80% of the health of fighters.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide

When AD&D was published, of the three core books the DMG came out last. As a result it contained everything they forgot to put into the first two books. This meant that, among other things, huge amounts of information pretty much vital to players (e.g. notes on how pretty much every spell worked) were in a book forbidden to players.

A friend of mine once said that a set of role-playing rules comprises three kinds of things. Rules of representation (what does X in your imaginary world look like in terms of game mechanics?), rules of resolution (what happens when X tries to do Y?), and “vague waffle about role-play”. This was not to denigrate the third item, indeed some of the best RPG rules ever written have been notable in large part for their excellent vague waffle about role-play (I’m thinking of RuneQuest 2nd Edition and James Bond 007).

The latest DMG is very much what it ought to be — a book describing how to be a “Dungeon Master”. In other words, it’s almost entirely “vague waffle about role-play”. It includes some pretty neat stuff, including how to put together different kinds of challenging set pieces (e.g. how to handle a delicate negotiation, or a street chase), shortcuts for customizing monsters (e.g. making a “leader” version of a type of monster), and some reasonably well put together sample content (the D&D4 rules are conspicuously short of examples in general). This alone represents a huge advancement over the original rules (I’m not sure how big an advancement it is over D&D3, since I never paid much attention to the D&D3 DMG).

If you have a pretty good idea about how to DM (or GM) a role-playing game, you can probably make do without the DMG at all, although you may find it interesting even so.

The Basic Flaw, Revisited

The basic problem with D&D has always been that it’s virtually impossible to recreate characters from the source material (e.g. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, or the Gray Mouser from Lankhmar) legally using the game rules. This despite the fact that Aragorn was clearly the inspiration for the “ranger” class and the Mouser was clearly the inspiration for the thief (now rogue) class. It seems like this problem has finally been addressed in D&D4 which, alone, seems like a major improvement. On the other hand, the amount of complexity D&D has added in order to allow character classes to be squeezed into some kind of useful shape seems like a bit of a disaster. As I read the D&D4 rules I was continually struck by how much simpler just ditching character classes and levels would make everything.

After D&D first appeared, the second major RPG to be published was RuneQuest. (The main game designer was Steve Perrin, author of the “Perrin conventions” which allowed people to make sense of the original D&D rules.) RuneQuest more-or-less kept D&D’s attributes, but dropped character classes, levels, and alignments and replaced them with skills, spells, and a detailed background (which included religions and shamanism).

Not only did RuneQuest’s approach allow you to easily represent any character you wanted to (especially once the setting was generalized out of existence) but it let you start playing the character you wanted to play pretty much straight away. (In D&D you start out playing a total wimp and can end up playing a ridiculously powerful caricature — whether you ever get to play the character you originally wanted to play is doubtful.)

One of the most obvious differences between RuneQuest and D&D is that while a more powerful character tends to be slightly tougher, slightly stronger, slightly more agile, and so forth than a weak character, the real difference lies in skill. Not only is a powerful character better at hitting things, he/she is better at not getting hit. This is a case of realism making things simpler — D&D has horrendous amounts of complexity in it purely to work around the core mechanic of “going up levels gives you more hit points but doesn’t really make you harder to hurt”. Similarly, RuneQuest tends to use realistic rules to prevent silliness (wearing metal armor makes it harder to sneak around) rather than arbitrary “because I said so” restrictions (“thieves may not wear heavy armor”).

How Much of This Crap Do I Need To Buy?

It’s worth mentioning that the Player’s Handbook contains pretty much all the rules you need to play D&D4, although for “monsters” you’ll need the Monster Manual.

One of the annoying aspects of D&D4 is that all the core rulebooks have been split into two parts. Player’s Handbook 2, for instance, contains the rules for Monks, Bards, Druids, etc. (three two of my favorite character classes), and Monster Manual 2 contains many “standard” monsters (like frost giants). I’m used to the secondary books having useless half-assed crap that I can live without in them (the original Monster Manual 2 was utterly worthless, for example, and all of the extra PH-style books were pretty terrible). What’s next — a psionics rulebook that isn’t completely broken?

It follows that a complete set of core rules is going to set you back around $120-150 (much more outside the US, I expect). That’s before you fork out for miniatures and dungeon tiles (and the vastly tightened up combat rules virtually beg you to start using maps and miniatures).

What I’d Change (based on what I’ve seen so far)

Obviously, I’d eliminate alignments. To the extent that there’s the concept of “a sword that can only be wielded by a good person” or “a ring that gradually makes its wearer evil” — some concrete mechanics would be necessary, but they’d be far preferable to having alignments.

I’d eliminate character classes. I might keep the idea of “levels”, but when you go up a level you’d simply get a pool of points to spend, and possibly access to perks and attribute bonuses.

Most feats would simply disappear, since they either give you abilities everyone should have or mess with idiotic game mechanics. Those remaining would either become “abilities” (along with “spells”, “powers”, and “skills”) or “perks” (as per Fallout). Abilities would have prerequisites and many would be presented as “trees”.

I’d eliminate the concepts of encounter and at will abilities and put in the concept of fatigue. Everything has a fatigue cost. You get fatigue back by resting. Some “daily” abilities would simply cost a lot of fatigue, others would be “exhausting”. (I’d have rules for getting exhausted and being exhausted.) I might add a separate “mana” pool, if nothing else to give magical abilities a different set of dependencies than mundane.

AC et al must be replaced with a more sensible system. Armor mitigates hits (i.e. reduces the damage you take from hits). Dexterity and skill make you harder to hit. Fighting styles/stances should confer offensive or defensive advantages and options.

I’d make weapons do more damage and give characters more ability to defend themselves. Parries, ripostes, dodges, and active resistance would be new actions available in the combat system.

And, finally, I have an idea for making d20 resolution work better in general, but more on that in another post.

Provisional Conclusion

I haven’t played D&D in a very long time, so the fact that I plan to play some D&D4 says a great deal of itself. (I went looking for miniatures today!) Based on what I’ve read thus far, it seems to me that D&D4 looks like a pretty good game. It’s not much of a role-playing game (but D&D never was), but it’s a pretty solid coop wargame (where your “opponent” isn’t especially interested in killing you) and of course there’s all those great magic items to collect and abilities to figure out. The combat rules afford real opportunities to do cute things — there are even benefits to maneuvering in combat — and characters have an interesting (and pretty huge) assortment of abilities to play with, some of which look like fun.

In the sense of “rules as content” the D&D4 rules probably have more new doohickeys to play with than any other edition of D&D since Greyhawk. It’s a shame — given how radical a departure D&D4 is from earlier versions of D&D — that they didn’t have the guts to actually fix its stupidest flaws.

  • David M Jacobs

    One quick clarification, if I may, with regard to facing in 4e: in the example you give, both enemy combatants will generally receive combat advantage (ie, a +2 bonus to hit) due to flanking.

    Another rule (which is mentioned in the PHB, but which I’ve yet to see implemented in play) is the Attack-Roll Aid Another action.

    Imagine that monsters A and B flank PC X; A decides to support B’s attack. A rolls a basic melee attack (with a +2 bonus due to combat advantage — see above) hoping to hit AC10, and succeeds. B then attacks X as usual, with a +4 bonus to hit — +2 from combat advantage, and +2 from A’s successful Aid Another action.

    Given that 4e runs off a square grid, monsters C through H could join in as well, completely surrounding the hapless X; if they all decide to Aid Another, then B might potentially have a massive +18 bonus to hit (+2 from combat advantage, +16 from eight Aid Anothers), in addition to any bonuses in its stat block. When handled properly, minions can actually hold their own in combat.

  • nat barmore

    I don’t think Tonio thinks that there’s no mechanical effect of flanking, just that facing doesn’t matter–i.e., you can’t decide that the kobold minion is a non-issue, ignore it, and focus on his warlock overlord (in mechanical terms: take some large penalty vs. the kobold, in return for not suffering any penalties vs. the warlock–because if the warlock hits you you’re dead, but if his minion hits you it won’t matter).

  • Nat is exactly right. Let’s take a case where I know I have a sniper ready to take out anyone who comes up behind me. I can safely (or think I can safely) ignore them. Or let’s suppose there are two guys on one side and one on the other — why can’t I decide I’d rather face the two guys? RPGs thrive on having a low level of abstraction, especially in combat. I can’t even say “there I was, face to face with a goblin when…” because I don’t know what direction I’m looking in.

    One of the worst fallouts of this kind of thinking is the way fighter’s “marking” targets work. The basic idea is that a fighter picks a target to concentrate on and if that target doesn’t devote its attention to the fighter then the fighter opens a can of whoop-ass. But if one fighter “marks” a target then another fighter “marking” it cancels it out. WTF? The way it ought to work is that if more than one fighter marks a target, that target is in deep doodoo. There’s a similar ability for each tank class, and frankly they’d all work better if the way you demonstrated you were focusing on the tank included facing them. It’s better than the way “taunt” works in MMORPGs, but it’s still silly.

    I do have a correction though: spells are different from skills in one way. You can put more “daily spells” in your spellbook than you can use in a day (you learn two for each “slot” you get, and you can pick up more), but you must choose which ones you’re “memorizing” each day (and you can’t even take one twice). Rituals also work a lot like spells (but anyone can learn to do them). This somewhat harkens back to one of original magic rules in old D&D (you memorize X spells in advance), which in turn is taken from Turjan of Miir (the first story in The Dying Earth) — along with about half of D&D’s most memorable spells. This is why it was often called a “Vancian” magic system. It’s better than nothing.

  • Mark Cogan

    For such a substantial review, it’s a shame about all of the factual glitches.

    What you call powers and spells are actually class features and powers, respectively. The cleric class feature that gives a healing bonus is Healer’s Lore, not Healing Word, and it affects powers with the healing keyword (of which there are several dozen outside of the cleric powers in the PHB alone). I don’t know what you’re referring to with the “after resting” power usage; the rules are pretty clear on the at-will/encounter/daily split. There is no pool of “points” that Utility powers are chosen from. Your correction about spellbooks is specific to wizards; other arcane classes (that is, those who use spells — warlocks, sorcerers, bards) don’t get this benefit. Rogues can take powers that allow them to climb much better than other classes.

    Monsters do not use healing surges or Second Wind unless they have powers that say they can. A 1st-level fighter can reasonably expect to be doing damage much more like D12+6 than D8+3 (dwarf fighter with a greataxe), as well as some secondary benefit from their at-will attack (for example, Reaping Strike would let the same fighter still do 4 damage on a miss). With a +7 attack bonus, such a fighter will hit a Kobold Skirmisher (AC 15) 60% of the time, and thus can expect to do [6+6.5] * .6 + 4 * .4 == 9.1 damage per attack against the 27 HP kobold. That’s three rounds, not twelve, and we’re not counting using encounter or daily powers, action points, opportunity attacks triggered by the fighter’s Combat Superiority, or any benefits from teammates. In any case, if the encounter is supposed to have hordes of kobolds that are easily mown down, that’s what minions are for.

    Game balance. I’m not sure if I understand the concern here. While I think there are real criticisms to be made about the epic-tier powers (for example, the fighter 25th level dailies seem much more fun than the 29ths), it’s clearly simplistic to determine that clerics are overpowered based on that alone. In fact, it’s not clear how you’d measure if one class was overpowered at all. You can’t just run a cleric through some combats and compare it to a fighter or a rogue in the same encounters, because D&D4e encounters are designed to be group challenges, and different classes have different roles. In a sense clerics (leaders) are incommensurate with rogues (strikers) because they’re supposed to be doing different things anyway. I suspect (and I haven’t taken the time to generate and optimize characters to determine this) that a well-tuned 29th level rogue will be able to deliver a lot more damage to single targets than a cleric of the same level optimized for the same task. But the rogue will do little to bolster allies in a fight or aid in the group’s ability to keep going without an extended rest (or dying).

    In any case, you seem to want to play a different kind of game than WOTC have delivered; you expect any RPG to be a simulation. But, in the parlance of the kids today, D&D4e takes a strongly “gamist” approach. It’s not concerned with what’s realistic so much as what delivers an entertaining gaming experience. Yes, hit points and healing surges and the way skills work and so on and on don’t make sense in any real-world terms, and if you want to play a gritty realistic simulation, then these things don’t help. But if you want to play a series of fun interconnected wargames with a larger resource-management system around them, then there’s pretty clear reasons why D&D4e is designed the way it is. D&D has become, as far as I can tell, a gaming experience unto itself — self-referentially, 4e is the best game system yet for playing D&D. If you want to play a different game, then 4e’s probably not for you. But for playing D&D, then 4e’s a blast.

    There are definitely some things I wish had been done differently — as you point out, some class features (and some powers) seem really fiddly and hard to encapsulate flavor-wise. I don’t like how all of the cool stuff players can do has to be defined in terms of combat, and how most of those cool things have to be defined as attacks. High-level powers seem somewhat anemic (both on PCs and monsters) and epic-tier fights seem like (I haven’t run any) they would turn into meat-chopping slogs that go on longer than at lower tiers. Because monsters are defined solely in terms of their combat stats, a lot of the hoopy high-level monsters (demons, etc) seem very bland to me; the 4e policy on noncombat magical abilities for creatures like this is that you can have them do whatever your story needs (same goes for NPC wizards, etc).

    Anyhow — I’d encourage you to take the game for a spin as it is currently written. It’s fun, in the same leave-your-brain-at-the-door way that a good action movie is fun.

  • Thanks for your clarifications Mark, although I don’t think I was wrong in every case.

    My point in facetiously calling various class features (prayers, exploits, attacks, etc.) “spells” is that they all work alike (and in particular they work like spells in earlier editions) — which drains flavor from the (implied) setting and makes the game less compelling than it would otherwise be. If a fighter learns a technique called “bonk of death” he/she is mystically restricted to using it once per encounter or day, rather than being limited by — say — fatigue. I’ve made myself a bit clearer.

    Thank you for clarifying the difference between wizards and other arcane classes. I simply assumed they’d work like wizards; it’s a bit of a shame they don’t.

    “Monsters do not use healing surges”. I stand corrected. I guess I have a natural immunity to rules that special case “player characters”. I’ll correct the review.

    As for the damage equations: your dwarf fighter is optimized for damage output. OK, fine. But a typical party won’t be optimized across the board for dps, so using a defensive fighter’s hit rate and damage output is actually far more reasonable than a dps-optimized fighter’s. (And you’re assuming the mobs just stand there and take it — they’ve got powers too.) Of course various powers and advantages will shorten the fight, but we’re a long way from AD&D where a typical first level mob would be dead in one or two hits.

    “Game balance”. It seems to me that clerics remain overpowered — and the more I look at the rules the more it seems true. Wizards definitely get a lot of goodies no-one else can (conveniently) get. I’m not sure if “Paladins” aren’t the master race (they can “suck” mobs onto them like fighters, and can heal like crazy, but they don’t efficiently use other players’ healing surges the way clerics do). Some of the new classes (e.g. warlords) seem to have orthogonal powers that may be valuable of themselves (or even make clerics obsolete). Essentially there are a lot of “bard-like” classes who basically give group bonuses, making them good if the group can take advantage of them well. I can’t tell having not extensively messed around with the game, but with feats allowing cross-training of skills and swapping out of powers you might as well just take the best chassis and tack the good stuff on to it.

    “you seem to want to play a different kind of game than WOTC have delivered” — my review takes three different tacks. In the main I try to review D&D4 in terms of the game it seems to be intended to be — and I think I’m pretty positive about it. I also complain about the game it could have been with relatively little work if the “OMG AC MUST MAKE YOU HARDER TO HIT” crowd hadn’t spoiled the fun. And finally I do complain that it isn’t the game I would have designed. But I think your point here is already addressed in the review — I think I make it quite clear (I certainly try to) when I’m critiquing the intent rather than the execution.

    I think my main criticism — which is implied rather than explicit — is that the way character classes work now fails to make the game simpler than a skill-based game (indeed all the workarounds to allow multi-class-like stuff make it substantially more complex), and buys you pretty much nothing (except, I suppose, the ability to sell supplements with new character classes in them). It’s not like it’s easy to “roll up” a level one fighter any more. You need to either slavishly copy one of the example builds, or read through bazillions of skills, feats, and powers (spread among something a half-dozen rulebooks) to figure out what you want. How is this better in any way than a pure skill-based system?