You may recall that my first impression of Fourth Edition D&D was less than favorable. Back in June, I finally played 4th Edition D&D for the first time. In spite of some problems with the published scenario we used, my players and I enjoyed 4E rather more than I expected to.

Good Things About 4E

Here are some of the things we liked.

More Tactical Choice

The way powers work in 4E means that every characters has a selection of powers that can be used at will. Most of those powers are pretty good: things like the ranger’s Hit and Run power or the wizard’s Magic Missile. The players said they always had the feeling of having something useful to do. This was a big change for the wizard in particular.

Something I did not expect is that it’s actually easier for players to keep track of their characters’ abilities and options in 4E. This has everything to do with the innovation called power cards. Along with the 4E character sheet come cards, each about the size of a playing card, on which the characters’ powers are printed. No more flipping through the rule book in the middle of battle! Players can and do speed up battle by looking at the cards to plan their next move while other players are taking their turns. Of course in order to get the power cards one has to either use the D&D Character Builder software or buy the cards as a game accessory.

Easier Encounter Design

I was playing a prepared adventure but I read enough of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to see that encounter design in 4E is a lot easier, especially if you don’t have exactly four characters in the party. This is something that increasingly matters as the party advances in level.

Minions!

A minion in 4E is a monster that looks and behaves like a regular monster and has roughly the attack scores and damage as a regular monster, but has only one hit point. This makes it into a disposable “extra.” What I like about this is that the players can’t tell by looking how tough the encounter will be. They might be able to handle twelve goblins at first level if the goblins are all minions; on the other hand five goblins will be a challenge if there are no minions among them. That uncertainty means that players are always a little leery of going into battle against superior numbers. They’re more ready to flee if things turn against them. At the same time, minions’ tendency to keel over dead from a paper cut means that intelligent monsters should be less aggressive (I’m assuming the monsters do not know ahead of time how many hit points they each have). It’s less attractive to the monsters to chase a fleeing band of adventurers if the monsters have just seen those adventurers hack their way through two dozen of their kinsmen. So minions give the DM a way to keep the players guessing and at the same time they make battle easier for the player characters to survive. What’s not to like?

Players also tend to groan when they “waste” their best daily power on a minion. To that I can only say, choose your targets carefully. After the first battle involving minions my players learned to only use their best powers on opponents who had already survived one hit.

I was skeptical about minions at first. They’re one example of something that works better in actual play than it would seem from first reading about it.

Skill Challenges

Skill challenges are the best argument against my earlier assertion that D&D Fourth Edition is only about combat. A skill challenge is an encounter where characters use their skills instead of fighting something. Generally speaking the challenge is set up so the characters have to pass a certain number of skill checks before failing another number of checks: for example, accumulate 6 successes before accumulating 3 failures, or the like. Here’s the new and important thing: skill challenges are considered encounters. Characters actually get experience points for them!

Awarding experience points for non-combat encounters is not, in itself, new. DMs have been doing that as a house rule since I was in junior high school. I believe Second Edition D&D talked about it and Third Edition spent a couple of paragraphs on it as well. Those previous editions awarded non-combat experience points in a very ad hoc way without offering the DM much in the way of constructive advice. In fact, the 3.5 edition of the DMG comes right out and says to make the non-combat awards low so as not to overshadow the XP gained from slaying and pillaging. The breakthrough in Fourth Edition is that there are rules that make the XP awards for skill challenges exactly equivalent to those from slaying monsters. A DM can build a whole encounter entirely out of skill challenges, or can mix and match skill challenges and monsters in the same encounter.

With a spoonful of imagination, a DM can get a lot of mileage out of a skill challenge encounter. This matters a lot to me. I’ve been playing D&D for 30 years now. Believe it or not, just fighting monsters for all that time can get kind of boring.

Rituals

Another criticism I had that was not entirely well-founded was the lack of non-combat spells. While it’s true that the spells for each character class are heavily oriented toward combat, there is another class of spells called rituals that can only be cast outside of combat (because they take several minutes to an hour to cast, and as the name suggests they require extensive materials and preparation).

I like the idea of rituals because I don’t think a wizard’s best spell should be something he can dash off in a round or two in the middle of battle. I prefer the atmosphere of the spellcaster having to draw magic circles on the floor, light seven candles infused with different mystical substances, wait until the moon and planets are in favorable alignment, and so on. Rituals bring that into the game (well except maybe the moon and planets part), and that’s cool.

The selection of rituals in the Player’s Handbook is scanty but most of them are good, solid rituals that are worth using. The selection of rituals has expanded a lot as additional supplements have been published. That goes a long way to ameliorate my complaint about the lack of non-combat spells.

Problems I Still See

While all of the foregoing give me enough reason to pick up 4th Edition and play it again, I do so with some reservations.

Characters Development is Narrow and Linear

The style of character development in Third Edition was much more to my liking than that in Fourth. In Third Edition, the rules made it possible to choose a character concept and then shape the character’s abilities to fit that concept. In Fourth Edition, all the concepts and options are written into the character classes ahead of time. This shows up clearly in the explicit 4E concepts of character builds, paragon paths, and epic destinies.

Builds are specific themes within a character class. For instance, if you’ve decided to play a paladin, there are two builds available: the avenging paladin, who is more oriented toward smiting enemies with his powers, and the protecting paladin, who is more (obviously) oriented toward defensive powers. That is fine as far as it goes, but the character classes as written seem to support only two builds. If you’re playing a paladin and you want a third option, say a “visionary paladin” who is guided by messages from his deity, there aren’t any powers for your class that are compatible with that concept. While you might be able to get part of what you’re looking for by choosing the right feats and through the 4E version of multi-classing, it seems likely you’ll come up short.

The analogy I use is one of transportation. The 3E character development process was like driving an off-road vehicle: you could follow the expected path if you wanted, or go in any direction at any time. 4E character development is more like riding a train. You can get on any track at the station, but once you’re on it, you can only go on one path, and you can only change trains at the scheduled stops. The 4E approach is probably easier for newcomers, and power-gamers won’t care, but since I’m not neither a newcomer nor a power-gamer, I miss the ability to take my characters in new directions as his story unfolds.

Goofiness is Creeping In

I have to say it: some of the races and classes that are coming into 4E are downright goofy. My pet peeve are psionics, which just don’t seem to fit into a fantasy theme alongside arcane and divine (and, in 4E, primal) magic. I was never a fan of minotaurs as a player-character race. There are a number of other issues, from the flavor text of many powers (such as “your weapon glows with holy light…”) to new races such as the shardmind, crystalline beings with psionic powers.

On one hand, goofiness and coolness are in the eye of the beholder. Some people probably think the dragonborn are goofy. I happen to think they rock. On the other hand, I don’t remember having this problem with Third Edition D&D. Well, except with the dragon disciple prestige class: the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe it’s just that Fourth Edition is aimed at a younger audience. Another factor is that with a product line as prolific as D&D, it is probably inevitable that not everything in the canon will be to everyone’s liking. Of my various criticisms of Fourth Edition D&D, this is the easiest for me to work around: I just cherry-pick the races and monsters and magic items I find appealing, and ignore the goofy ones. There is always the possibility that one of my players may have different tastes and want to play something I think is goofy, like a minotaur or a shardmind. An opportunity lies within that risk, though: if the player can convince me why this goofy race or character class is actually cool, then I’ll work it into my world. Everybody wins.

D&D is a Collectible Roleplaying Game

Wizards of the Coast is cranking out supplements for 4E at a downright alarming rate. At the time of this writing, 4E is only two and a half years old and already the Product Catalog lists 93 accessories. Ninety-three! I can’t imagine how anyone, including the full-time D&D design staff, can keep track of and actually use that much material. We can look forward to several more years of expanding complexity before the inevitable reset with D&D 5E.

The so-called “core” books have become annual periodicals. There are already a Player’s Handbook 2, Player’s Handbook 3, a Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, and a Monster Manual 2 and 3. This would not be so bad except that the “core” character classes and races from the 3E Player’s Handbook are now spread across three volumes. The reason it took me two years to actually try Fourth Edition was that my current party contains a monk, and monks weren’t available until Player’s Handbook 3. This is a marketing strategy reminiscent of the reason I quit reading comic books: in order to follow the continuity, you have to subscribe to 3 or 4 different titles. Then there is this new “D&D Essentials” product line, which as far as I can tell is anything but essential because I was playing D&D just fine before it came out. It’s not the expense that bothers me most: gaming products are cheap when you look at them in terms of dollars per hour of entertainment. It’s the amount of space these products take up on my shelf, and the trouble of trying to play a game whose rules are sprawled across seven different books and 2500 pages.

D&D Insider is the solution to this. The best feature of D&D Insider is the “rules compendium,” which contains the full text of all the monsters, feats, powers, magic items, races, classes, etc. from all the books in a searchable database format. This is a much better way to manage the ever-expanding rule set than trying to hoard the right subset of hardcover books. This is especially true when the ratio of cool and useful content to goofy and extraneous content is steadily diminishing with each new game supplement. It’s as if Wizards of the Coast is trying its darndest to train me not to buy its printed books.

Unfortunately, D&D Insider has its own problems.

D&D Insider is Screwing With Customers

Wizards of the Coast has a long history of over-promising and under-delivering when it comes to electronic play aids for D&D. Just recently, I thought they were finally reversing that unhappy trend: the downloadable Character Builder program was actually pretty functional, though I can’t say anything nice about its user interface. In fact it was Character Builder’s usefulness that motivated me to buy a subscription to D&D Insider.

But, as of about a month ago, Wizards of the Coast has reverted to type. They canceled the decent Character Builder tool and replaced it with a shambling wreck of an online-only substitute. I started to rant about this and the words came so easily, I really should make another post about it. Suffice to say, they used to offer a tool I liked, and just when I was starting to warm up to their digital offerings, they yanked that tool away from me and handed me … something else, to put it politely. To add insult to injury, they’ve clearly spent their development budget on fixing a tool that wasn’t broken, instead of implementing a new feature that would bring new benefits to the customer.

This is a continuation of the pattern of abuse that customers of D&D Insider should be used to by now.

Conclusions

So, I’m in a bit of a quandary about D&D 4E. It’s fun to play at the level of an individual game session. For longer-term character development, it seems less satisfying than 3E but I can probably work around it. I don’t really like what Wizards of the Coast is doing with their product line and I heartily dislike the way they’re treating me as a customer. I’m sorely tempted to let my D&D Insider subscription run out, but I’m not sure the game would be really playable without the DM having it.

So what I’ll do instead is what I’ve done with other editions of D&D: I’ll play it, but I’ll stick to the core books and resist spending a lot of money on it. I’ve always taken a more creative approach to D&D than really seems to fit with the product lineup TSR, and now Wizards of the Coast, chose to offer.