Monday, October 5, 2015

After the Delve (4E)

Okay, it appears I am done with my sojourn into the realm of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I reread the DMG2 and didn't find anything really worth mentioning (not in a positive light, anyway)...a lot of it just feels like "filler."

[oh, and I did find a PDF copy of the MM2 and had a chance to read it. Eh]

Here's the complete series for folks who want the links in one place:

Delving 4E (Part 1)

After spending a week or so on 4E, reading it, analyzing it, thinking about it, I feel...I feel...I don't know how I feel about it. Well, not enough to put it succinctly.

First, I think there is some neat ideas in the 4E system...ideas and concepts I think are interesting and even exciting. Things I'd like to use or play with. And that's surprising to me (though it shouldn't be). It isn't a total cesspool when it comes to design elements...and I think that might have been my base assumption prior to actually reading the thing.

I was also surprised that...well, honestly I forgot how long ago 4E hit the shelves. It's first print date was June 2008. I only started this blog in June of entire year after 4E had been distributed, demonstrated, played by D&D fans all over the world. And somehow I got by for years blogging about out-o-print editions and badmouthing 4E with (effectively) zero experience with the system. No wonder I lack credibility in some (many) circles...the readership I've managed to maintain has been incredibly forgiving in this regard.

That being said, 4E is still a train wreck, and most of the things I wrote about it (even without reading it) still seem pretty fair assessments. A lot of time, money, and effort went in to making a game that alienated a large portion of a long-time fan base, lacked staying power, and (in the final analysis) failed in meeting some of the basic objectives of the designers. Whether or not this was the reason many of 4E's designers have parted ways with WotC (as opposed to the simple economic fluctuations of the industry and corporate politics)...who can say? But for all the work put into the game, from publication to the announcement of 5E (in January 2012), the 4th edition lasted all of three-and-a-half years. Which I suppose is the same length of time that 3E lasted before 3.5 was published...but 3E and 3.5 were the same system and mostly compatible with each other, whereas 4E exists in its own bubble.

Sometime back (years ago), I pondered whether or not someone will...20 years from now...pine over their days of playing 4th Edition D&D, the same way OSR folks reminisce about B/X or OD&D or AD&D or BECMI. Will there be people still playing 4E, continuously, for the next two or three decades, in the same way people have been playing older editions of D&D since the 70s and 80s? While I have a hard time saying 'yes,' I recognize there are a lot of folks who've invested a substantial amount of money in books and minis and battle mats. I'm sure someone will enjoy setting up an encounter for a free-wheeling wrecking crew 15-25 years from now.

But will they remember how to play? Will they be able to find people interested in learning (or relearning) such a complex system just for the sake of rolling dice and knocking down miniatures? That's a lot of mental energy for so little (imaginative) return.

And perhaps the most surprising thing of all is I feel a little sorry about this. There's a part of me that wants to like 4E, would like to see it succeed, even though I know it's already when you re-watch a film, knowing the ending, but want the ending to be different because of your sympathy for the characters in the story. There's some interesting stuff in 4E, and it talks a good game, even if it's setup to play poorly.

I'm sure most of the folks who read this blog are familiar with the movie The Princess Bride. When I was a youth, my buddy Rob excitedly explained that the film was based on an abridged novel, "The Good Parts Version," of an older, longer, very boring novel by S. Morgenstern. My friend (an aspiring writer) really wanted to find a copy of the original book, just to see the differences and what had been "cut out," and spent a good long time looking for a copy. Myself, I thought it was interesting anecdotally, but I was satisfied with the movie and never in a great rush to read either book (I had many other books to finish).

It was only a week ago (in reading about the novel family just watched the film) that I discovered the "abridgment" was nothing more than a literary device of the actual author, William Goldman...that there never was an "S. Morgenstern" or any earlier work to be abridged. I wonder if Rob ever discovered this and (if not) how long he continued his search before giving it up.

I bring this up because, after doing this series, I can't help but think the 4th edition could benefit from an abridgment, a "good parts version" of its own. Something easier to run, easier to play, easy to do while boozing it up...a Dungeons & Flagons kind of game. Something less serious, less prone to dramatization. Something easily accessible (even with a buzz). A dungeon crawl, funhouse-type game, without any sort of endgame or world-shaker ambitions. That's what 4E is really calling out to be, in my opinion.

D&D with more grog.

ANYway...that's about all I want to say about 4E. However, I'd very much like to hear the thoughts of people who have played or run 4E...your thoughts, your feelings, your retrospective perception of an edition that's currently on the scrap heap. Please feel free to comment on this post, or any of the other posts in this series (if there's a specific issue you want to address). I'd really be interested in getting the opinion of folks who actually had a chance to experience this particular style of D&D.

: )


  1. "Something easier to run, easier to play, easy to do while boozing it up..."

    i think you might be talking about "13th age". maybe check it out.

    1. @ Shlomo:

      You're the second person to mention 13th Age to me recently. The reviews I've read haven't impressed me...but then, maybe they haven't done the game justice.

    2. i know very little about both games, but from what i've read, 13th age seems to be an improved version of 4th edition.

  2. I like that 5E has its own abridged edition, the free Basic PDFs.

    1. @ Eric:

      Oh, have they been updated so that they're a complete basic game now? Because the last time I checked, you can't learn/teach/run a game with those PDFs.

    2. I don't know if the current PDF is different from what you initially read, but the current Basic Rules seem pretty well complete. There are 4 classes, 4 races, all of the same equipment from the PHB. I think the spellcasting classes have access to all of their PHB spells. There are chapters describing combat, adventuring, and factions in the Forgotten Realms.

      There is a separate PDF DM's guide, which is more of a "Here are some monsters and how monsters and experience work." guide.

      There are no (to my knowledge) magic items, treasure tables, or traps. It's enough to play the game if you already know what D&D is, but might leave a complete newbie floundering. The big thing that I keep in mind is the DC scaling, simple is 5, easy is 10, moderate is 15, hard is 20, and very hard is 25. The math stays pretty flat through the game, and those DCs work for skills and saving throws alike,

    3. @ Matt:

      A game that doesn't explain how to play unless "you already know what D&D is" isn't a basic game, or even a complete game. A new person cannot pick up those PDFs and create/run a campaign.

    4. Fair. I see the "Basic Rules" as more of an aid to new Players than to new prospective DMs. Like, if I were DMing at a club or pub, or trying to convince a new player to join, I could either hand players the Basic Rules that I printed, or direct them to the PDF. The choices to be made are much easier to manage, and the rules take that character from level 1 to level 20.

      Checking out the Basic Rules taught me what was different between 5e and other editions, and really convinced me to shell out for the core books (Save the Monster Manual, because there was little in that book that impressed me, I have 4 editions worth of Monster books anyway, and I still usually end up crafting my own monsters anyway.)

    5. Last time I actually read the PDFs (a few months ago) they don't actually explain Experience. So, uh, yeah.

  3. Too bad you never actually played it. The good parts version is called 13th Age.

    1. @ littlemute:

      Huh. That's not really how the reviews read. But maybe I'm looking at the wrong reviews.

      I don't think I regret not playing 4E. To a certain degree I wish I hadn't spent as much time (and money) on 3E as I did.

    2. 4E is the D&D answer to Descent. Why they didn't come out with a huge box set with tons of miniatures inside I never understood, because that's what it's really good at. They out-Descented Descent. For 13th Age - the lead designer from 3 (Tweet) and 4 (Heinsoo) got together and made a game from their home systems-- that's 13th Age. It is not OSR like 5E, as it's high fantasy with some Feng Shui elements, but I can tell you it's fantastic to run and all sorts of gonzo.

  4. From the little I've played, the "good parts" version of 4e is the D&D Adventure System board games, the most recent of which (Temple of Elemental Evil, which I own) came out earlier this year. Personally, I'm not a fan of how everything, from spells to attacks, has to be put on a separate "Powers" card in the board games, but as a set of DM-less dungeon crawls (and a bunch of nice plastic minis), they're well worth checking out. The newest one, ToEE, even has campaign rules, so it could definitely function as an abridged version of 4e.

    1. @ Fuzzy:

      I like board games, but I'm more interested in RPGs.

  5. To be honest, we played using the established modules (the Orcus storyline) and we would have finished them, but someone dropped out and the dynamic of the group really changed. We had a TON of fun with the system and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think that it got a bad reputation, and the later releases did nothing but confirm that.

    The core concept was really, really good. I know that people slammed it for being videogamey, but I don't know why more designers don't take seriously the idea that all character classes should be equally interesting and fun. The fighter and rogue had as many cool choices to make, and as many cool things to do, as the wizard or cleric. The wizard didn't dominate in late play or anything like that.

    I know that the reliance on maps and minis was also criticized, but it's one of the very few games where I have seen players consistently moving their characters, and moving their opposition.

    It also allowed you to create very thematic, distinctive characters who played very memorably. One of our fighters was an overconfident, Falstaffian sort who focused on powers that let him hurl into the fray and hit everyone around him. Like Fezzig, he fought better against crowds. Another, different fighter, consistently took abilities that let him knock people away and/or prone. His heavy warhammer really seemed to slam people like Thor in the movies.

    I think that there were a few design flaws, a few bad marketing decisions, and some later bad choices. For design flaws, the systems for social conflict resolution were simply terrible. For a game where the combat system was so carefully plotted, the methods for things like Bluffing and Intimidation were flatly a mess. I'm not a fan of the d20 method on this (bell curve FTW), but 4e was bad.

    For poor marketing decisions, a LOT of the character classes seemed incomplete until supplements came out. Things that should have been in the first book were obviously held back until later books. Characters with unique niches were unable to maintain them as they advanced, until PHB2 came out. You might have a Shoving maneuver at lv 2, but nothing to replace it when you trained it out later that also pushed an opponent.

    4e understood (apparently) that the completist mania of having planes, gods, and monsters for every segment of the alignment wheel made for a poorly thought out universe. Then, they turned right around and forced themselves to make arcane/divine/martial/primal striker/defender/controller/leader. Some classes were good. Some classes were creatively brilliant. Others were obviously forced. Primal and Shadow were simply gimmick archetypes. They pushed out way too much stuff after the initial releases, and way too much of it was crap.

    Having said all that, it was the best system to run that I've ever used. It was literally JUST AS MUCH FUN to DM as it was to play. It was designed to be easy to run, and easy to adjudicate. People complain a LOT about the planned encounter length and things like that, but, in most cases, each monster and bad guy lasted long enough in every fight to do everything 'iconic' about them. I've run a lot of GURPS and Pathfinder and D&D, and I can tell you that a lot of encounters end with people thinking "Was that it?". You have a distinctive, unique bad guy, or a awesome new monster, and he goes down early, or has weird combinations of abilities that never get 'the setup' right. Not 4e. If Arik Evildude is famous for burning the skin off of people, then Arik WILL HAVE cool, skin-burning attacks, and he will get to use them.

    I was very upset with the failure of 4e, because I felt like WOTC had a solid concept of a new design philosophy for D&D, and then screwed it up because MOAR splatbooks and MOAR powers is how you make the money.

    1. @ Butch:

      Thank you for your feedback. I have a couple follow-up questions:

      1) Have you played and/or run D&D games other than 3E and 4E (i.e. older editions)?

      2) I'm confused by some of your comments, specifically:

      "...I don't know why more designers don't take seriously the idea that all character classes should be equally interesting and fun. The fighter and rogue had as many cool choices to make, and as many cool things to do, as the wizard or cleric."

      Are you referring specifically to combat situations? Because rogues have (traditionally) done a lot of things, and had many interesting options, outside of battle. And fighters tend to shine in combat, in every edition, with more options and greater staying power than other classes.

  6. I think the 4th Ed had an "Essentials" Boxset (published in a redbox with the Elmore illo from the Mentzer basic). Wasn't that some kind of "abridged" 4E.