In spite of laser clerics, or not bashing 4e

21 August, 2008 at 10:30 am (game design) (, , )

I’m not exactly a 4e hater. (Even though laser clerics and astral diamonds and starblah armours are profoundly stupid. In my opinion.)

So, there exists a bunch of things that 4e does very right. I have not played it, so these are only from design perspective. (My bias: I like elegant game designs.) The following are not in any particular order.

Out of combat

Skill challenges are a development long overdue. They allow one to mechanically handle non-combat encounters in such a way that it takes some time, which focuses more attention on them. The challenge can be constructed so that it promotes using different skills, or at least accepts such use. The difficulty can be scaled arbitrarily by increasing DCs or the number of successful checks one needs to achieve a victory. (Two ways of handling difficulty are redundant, as one would have been enough, but it is easy enough to always look difficulty from a chart and only mess with the number of successes required. Or the other way around.) Skill challenges allow partial successes, which are essentially a form of “Yes, but…”. You track down the beast, but it has time to slay the residents of a lone farmstead. You find it resting atop a heap of slaughtered farmers. Good luck you did not fail two checks or it would have ambushed you. Or three, because it would have lead you to an ambush by an unfortunate band of orcs and slipped away in the fray.

Skill challenges are not actually mechanically interesting. To make them gameable, one would need to leave hints about the applicable skills in any particular situation.

The challenges are modular; if you don’t want to focus on a particular thing, just call for normal skill check and be done with it. Unfortunately the gamedoes not allow one to do this with combats, as of yet.

Character options

There are less options at character generation, and radically less options when advancing a character (no multiclassing). Both of these make the relevant process faster, which is good, but reduce playable options, which may be bad. The supplement treadmill is likely to greatly increase the number of options, given time (and money or illegal downloads).

At higher levels when getting a new level one does not so much gain new powers as swap old ones for new ones. This is good, because it reduces the number of options one has in play, hence reducing analysis paralysis and makes it less likely that some ability is forgotten (I have lost a 3rd edition character because I forgot he had one fifth chance of negating critical hits, and it was not fun to remember it afterwards). Also, swapping powers means that planning the character’s path 19/29 levels into future is less necessary, though not any less rewarding, which I think is a good thing.

Non-options, like 3rd edition caster/different caster or caster/noncaster multiclassing, have been radically cut down. This reduces the role of system mastery in character generation, which I think is a good thing. Nonfunctional archetypes are no fun.


Rituals deserve their own entry. Personally, I think that rules which force one to make choices between combat and noncombat ability are a bad thing in a combat-centric game. For example: Preparing fireball or whatever third level utility spells there exist in 3rd edition. This is not a problem in games that do not focus on combat to such a degree. Actually, the problems mostly arise in games where combat encounter, as opposed to say an entire dungeon, is a discreet and central unit of game. Utility spells do not always or usually function within that unit, hence it makes sense to make them a separate resource.

The idea of rituals also fits my aesthetic preferences. Implementation not quite as well.

In combat

All characters have several, hopefully viable, actions to take during any given round. At least in theory. This is certainly an improvement from 3rd edition, where all characters have a number of theoretically viable but often practically useless options. And then there is grapple.

I am certainly intrigued by how well the roles and their special abilities actually function in actual play. Does the fighter pushing a target by one square as an at-will power actually make a difference? This I’d like to know.

Here’s a bit of game design philosophy I support: Rules are bad if they are not used in actual play. Hence, the simplified monster stats are, in my opinion, a good thing. They reduce unnecessary cruft from the rules.


  1. greywulf said,

    Good post.

    We found that 4e plays a LOT better than it reads, so I encourage you to try it out in play ASAP.

    I’m finding that character generation is a lot more flexible than you’d expect too. It’s built on 3e’s char gen with the Powers adding just that extra dimension to the game. The Powers system also frees up the Feats for other, less combat oriented choices meaning Skill Focus and Skill Training become key feats to help mould your character. It’s simple enough to create a Fighter (for example) that’s completely unique. Want a Fighter who was a disappointment to his Wizard father because of his complete lack of magical aptitude – just add Skill Training (Arcana). Want a roguely Wizard? Skill Training (Stealth) and you’re there, or take the Multi-Class Rogue feat and gain a sneak attack too. Simple.Taking non-combat Feats no longer nerfs your character’s ability in combat. Nice.

    Seriously, the lack of races and character classes (compared to 3e + splatbooks) isn’t a problem as 4e is a much more hackable system than Third Edition. It’s simple enough to re-envision the races and mould the classes to your liking. See my 4e Catfolk Ninja for proof.

    What is lacking though is a good choice of Powers and Rituals. The PHB alone provides far too few of them. Thankfully though, Wizards’ online content through Dragon “magazine” and Forgotten Realms previews is more than making up the shortfall.

  2. TheLemming said,

    Great post, I agree especially on the point regarding skill challenges, and 4e isn’t all that bad – it get’s a few great new perspectives into the game – to me it just doesn’t feel matured? I mean the balance is way too perfect, the approaches on various things (e.g. passive skills) or the real-time reduction of necessary preparation time for newer dungeon masters, I think it’s great as well…
    Still 4e doesn’t feel right to me and I’ll stick to the pathfinder path, which seems more promising to me, where do you go? :)

  3. Jonathan said,

    agree with Lemming – excellent, level headed post. adding it to my bag of “4E support” posts. I think that about 90% of the bitching about 4E largely stems from the fact that 3E is VERY (if not overly) mature (developed). There thousands of possibility within the RAW to develop character and handle skill checks in 3E. In time, i have no doubt that the proffitz=supplement treadmill for 4E will catch up. But for now, the complainers strike me as being mad about the slate being wiped clean more than anything else.

  4. Donny_the_DM said,

    I’m with lemmi, great post. I also have serious issues with the “economy” as they seem to call it. There are a lot of niggling details as well.

    I love the new skill challenge mechanic, but I think they are erroring in trying too hard to codify everything. While prepping, I choose the “break” points that will transition from normal roleplaying to skill challenge. At this point, I decide on a matrix (successes vs. failures) and choose 1-3 skills that will result in an automatic failure. I then allow the players to use WHATEVER skills they feel are appropriate, and keep the DC the same across the board.

    They don’t know what skills are auto-fails, which balances their ridiculous “punish the out of box thinkers” crap that they are pushing. It has worked beautifully so far. It even ports flawlessly into 3.5 and Pathfinder.

    I agree with your synopsis, with a caveat. The game IS different in 4E. The focus has shifted exclusively to teamwork. Lone characters are dogmeat. Parties of 3 are dogmeat (without extensive encounter rewrites). Magical items? They are far less useful, as the utility aspects ahve been removed in favor of combat crunchy. IT’s just such a different game, that it practically begs people to find something they dont like about it.

    Oh! and hey guys! good to see ya : )

    IMO, they should have kept more and saved a few of the sweeping changes for the mid-life revision that is as inevitable as death and taxes.

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  6. wickedmurph said,

    Hi Donny
    I think that your 1-paragraph synopsis of using skill checks is more useful and consise than the entire skill challenge chapter. I’ll definitely be using it, combined with the Fast DC alogrithm that Mike Mearls posted over on Keep on the Gaming Lands:

    I’ve always struggled with integrating a characters skills with a players role-playing capabilities in RPGS. Just because a player can’t think of what to do, doesn’t mean his character couldn’t – so how do you resolve it? Lead them by the nose? Punish them for failure of imagination?

    I think skill challenges, especially the way you use them, give me an out there, a way to keep the game moving and ensure that everyone has a fighting chance at getting through a skills challenge.

    Great general post, as well. I think it sums up nicely what 4e has done well.

  7. Scott said,

    Regarding the fighter’s one-square push: yes, it really does make a difference. One of the big differences between 3e and 4e is that mobility is important, even central, in combat in 4e.

    In 3e, you would move to the monster, then stand still and full-attack it. The monster would also generally stand still in order to full-attack you.

    In 4e, you don’t get more attacks for standing still, so you might as well use those move actions. And with the new system, being able to go where you want to be — and being able to place the enemy where you want them to be — are paramount.

    The fighter’s one-square push is pretty meaningless if you consider the fighter in a vacuum. But it takes on a whole new meaning when that push breaks a flank on the cleric, or establishes a flank with the rogue, or makes the wizard’s area-effect spell hit that one extra target, or moves something out of melee with the archery ranger. That one square can change the whole course of the battle, if it comes at the right time and is used in the right way.

  8. the_blunderbuss said,

    I agree with Scott on the issue of mobility. As far as my post went, I was talking more from personal experience rather from a mechanic point of view. Mobility and placement is really king in 4th edition encounters, and it’s very entertaining to play with.

    Also pushing creatures onto other creatures works exceedingly well. Although I’m beginning to think that that option is not included on the book as I haven’t read anyone talking about it??? (I used that move several times when I was playing with our usual GM and he didn’t mention anything about it being a house rule.)


  9. Tommi said,

    I’ll play 4e as soon as someone runs it nearby. I’ll run it when I get MM and DMG for free or very low prices. It might be a while.

    I’d probably run it as a tactical dungeoncrawl, given that the rules run counter to my usual style of play.

    I’ll stick with running homebrew games and maybe Burning Wheel. I might play 4e is someone runs it. I might play 3rd edition or derivatives thereof if someone runs and there are no interesting choices. I am not a huge fan.

    Damn supplements. Draconomicon is the only one I’d buy again, and that is more out of principle than any added value in actual play.


    IMO, they should have kept more and saved a few of the sweeping changes for the mid-life revision that is as inevitable as death and taxes.

    I personally disagree. 4e is a paradigm shift and hence worth doing. It is good to see WotC developing something new. Maybe others will, too.


    I’ve always struggled with integrating a characters skills with a players role-playing capabilities in RPGS. Just because a player can’t think of what to do, doesn’t mean his character couldn’t – so how do you resolve it? Lead them by the nose? Punish them for failure of imagination?

    Suggest things or, better yet, encourage other players to suggest what to do.

    That is my gut reaction, too, but it is hard to verify it by simply reading the rules. I think I’ll have to rely on people who agree with my intuition.

    What does pushing creatures against each other do?

  10. the_blunderbuss said,

    Well… according to the GM I played with (notice all the careful wording there, I’m not sure if it’s how it works… I do know that it was fun to play with) when pushing a creature against another one of two things could happen. Either the creature bumps into the other but this second one stands still (there was some numbers involved) and the first gets pushed/rebound/something to the floor (so it counts as being prone) or… the players are lucky and both creatures fall down.

    Of course the critters did this to us as well… and I’m guessing this is not how the rules work (since it would put quite a bit of emphasis on the pushing attacks) so don’t take my word for it. I’m close to that chapter anyway so I’ll make sure to make a special mention of it on the next Gorilla Jam episode.

    PS: Welcome back!

  11. Tommi said,


    PHB, pages 285 and 286. “Forced movement can’t move a target into a space it couldn’t enter by walking.” That said, it is possible to walk through squares occupied by allies, but stopping there does not work (IIRC). Maybe the errata has something?

  12. the_blunderbuss said,

    I believe that it was his interpretation of the….

    Oh wait, I think I suppressed some memories. No no no, It wasn’t the GM it was US! (that means me actually, but I got support from the others.) I believe the exchange went something like this…

    GM: “You can’t push him into a square where there is another enemy…”
    Me: “Alright I can’t… what happens then?”
    GM: “What do you mean?”
    Me: “Well obviously even though we’re playing Risk here (-no I’m not bitter!-) we assume that there’s something going on with those guys… my magick was certainly strong enough to push him, so what happened?”
    GM: “Well… I guess you could have pushed him but the other guy just pushed him back when he saw him coming on top of him…”
    Me: “Aaaah, cool cool… or he didn’t push him back and they both trip! I mean it could certainly be possible given your interpretation of the situation… right?”
    GM: “Eh… yes right but…”
    Other players: “So they both fell down?! (excitement)”
    GM: “No, I didn’t say that.”
    Me: “No guys, I assume we need to roll for that first, right?”
    Player: (rolls and gets a natural 20) “Wohoo! So, what was I rolling for?”
    GM: (sighs) “… Nevermind, they’re both on the ground.”
    Striker: “I use my action point!…”

    It kind of went downhill from there, although that is probably part correct and part fabrication :P

  13. You_are-all_shlemmings said,

    I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for 2 decades now and I was absolutely appaled when 4th edition came out. I played for close to 6 months and then one day i decided enough with this garbage game. It has taken the fun out of ROLE-playing and replaced it with ROLL-playing worse than any other syste I have played. It is a power gamers wet dream and I cannot stand for that. It wouldn’t be so bad f WOTC still printed 3rd edition but alas they do not, much like their Magic sets. In with the new and out with the old. The character options are very limited and the have just about dumbed down the magic to the pont of uselessness. I have too many grievances with this system to list but in my opinion it is not a Dungeons and Dragons game in any form except for the title of RPG(again ROLL-playing game).

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