Strap in, it’s another meandering post about D&D!
When people talk about what influenced 4E, the first thing most people bring up is MMORPGs, especially World of Warcraft. It got turned into a catch phrase by 4E’s haters, and was routinely used without supplying any context that would give you a clue as to why it was a bad thing (or even a thing that mattered one way or the other). That it draws some ideas from MMOs is undeniable, though it’s also pretty clear that they carefully adapted those ideas to the medium at hand, which is why (for example) 4E’s Defenders are very different from a typical MMO Tank role. (They have to be in a game that doesn’t have any kind of aggro mechanic.) Although hardly anyone noticed, another thing that the designers have explicitly said they looked at was European board games, which is where for example a lot of the razor-sharp turn-handling mechanics came from. Mike Mearls and some of the other designers are also sports fans, and a lot of elements of 4E, especially with martial characters, make vastly more sense when you explain them in terms of basketball. Some people will rail about fighter marks being “mind control,” but sports fans seem to instantly grasp what defender marks represent if you explain it in terms of how defense works in basketball. A few times people have also tried to bring GNS theory into the list of influences, good or bad, and while Mearls and company were definitely aware of Forge theory and such, the rigor and focus of the design had so many other sources that I think it could have easily come about if the same team had never once heard of the Forge.
The one huge, glaring thing that routinely gets left out of discussions of 4E’s influences is D&D 3.5. Late in 3.5’s life people were exploring the limits of the system in ways they hadn’t quite done before. This was when terms like CoDzilla and Pun-Pun became widely known, and the D&D team, being the foremost group of people who were working on D&D as their actual profession full time, had to be listening to what the fanbase was saying. Not listening was one of 90s TSR’s biggest mistakes after all, and WotC launched their D&D venture with the aim of paying attention to what their fans wanted. 4E’s downright obsessive focus on game balance is clearly a reaction to the massive imbalances that character optimizers were able to unearth in 3.5. Charop still exists in 4E, but it’s nowhere close to the same level, and more importantly outside of extreme charop the difference in performance between a suboptimal and optimal character isn’t so massive as to totally obviate the suboptimal character. As someone with limited experience with 3.x and very extensive experience with 4E, whenever I looked through 3.5 books I was always struck by just how much wound up being familiar. The differences are considerable and important, but 4E is nonetheless a game that could only have come from people totally submerged in D&D 3.5 and the fandom around it. 4E is the game for which the Tome of Battle and Star Wars Saga Edition were intermediate steps, and which compared to any non-D&D game is pretty obviously an offshoot of the lineage that 3rd Edition started. To me it’s a reminder of the level of myopia that focusing too much on D&D alone can cause us.
When all is said and done, I think 4E was in effect a beta of something that could have become a really excellent game instead of a good one with some glaring flaws. A true 4.5 edition that kept the same basic framework while making key changes (rather than merely implementing errata and adding some new backwards-compatible material as Essentials did) might have accomplished that, or perhaps the game simply needed another year or so of playtesting and refinement before its release. On the other hand, I’m not sure the current D&D design team would actually be equipped to accomplish that, especially in light of the way the D&D Next playtests have been going. Where they did interim fixes for things in 4E they were often kludgey and created other problems, such as how their solution to PCs’ attack bonuses being too low was Expertise feats that both created an all but mandatory feat tax and make characters that much more inflexible in terms of what weapons they could be effective with. While needless to say I strongly disagree with the notions that the role-playing was “taken out” or that it’s not an RPG (based on about 3 years of intense play with a group that heavily emphasized sticking to RAW), the most RP-centric parts of the game were among the least refined.
Below is my (relatively) short list of issues with and hypothetical fixes for 4E, and this is just for repairing the game’s major shortcomings rather than any significant retooling.
- The math behind the monsters was off, leading to fights that could be a slog, especially for solos. They fixed this as of Monster Manual 3… which was a full 2 years after the game came out.
- Despite a few attempts to improve them (in the DMG2 and then in Essentials), skill challenges were ultimately a cool idea implemented badly. They were functional, but as written using them didn’t provide any great advantage over the DM improvising a comparable scene with freeform skill checks. A more robust and enjoyable conflict resolution system is entirely possible, and with little to no changes to anything else in the game.
- Rituals had too many disincentives to use them, and then Essentials dropped them entirely rather than doing anything to improve them. It wouldn’t be too hard to make them cheaper and to allow characters to cast them more quickly or even in combat at some kind of appropriate opportunity cost (a higher cost in GP and/or a higher DC, say). The existing rituals system is actually a good start–having played a ritual caster I can tell you they can let you do all kinds of fun stuff–but compared to Powers the system, inducements to use them are practically nonexistent. Martial Practices meanwhile were basically in their infancy and never got developed any further.
- I don’t think anyone disagrees that the selection of feats in 4E got completely out of control. Essentials had the right general idea for how it tried to keep them fewer in number and interesting and consequential, but an ideal upgrade would simply have a rule for the designers that feats never provide a mere numerical bonus.
- Make it easier for different classes to train in different skills. Kill off the idea that fighters should be deficient in skills and never, ever look back. Every class should be interesting to play out of combat, which dovetails into:
- Utility powers need to be more plentiful and less combat-oriented. Likewise, although Themes were a really cool idea, they too were overly combat-oriented in what they provided.
- Item dependence is a pretty obvious one, and it wouldn’t be hard to rejigger the math to make the equivalent of Inherent Bonuses the baseline or some such. Another benefit of it is that it would make improvised actions that much more viable to take, since grabbing a random object or weapon wouldn’t leave you behind by 3-5 points of attack bonus. I wouldn’t go as far as 13th Age (which comes about as close to killing off the concept of equipment as a D&D derivative can get) in a game with “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover, but I would try to keep the whole enhancement bonus thing to a minimum.
- Conditions need to be condensed and simplified, and a clear and easy means of tracking them provided. Narrow it down to a set of standardized conditions with a set of printable cards, and make non-standard conditions the exception to the rule. If someone is Dazed (Save Ends), put a Dazed (Save Ends) card in front of them. (Maybe make the cards so that you can rotate them depending on the duration or something?) There generally needs to be a lot more thought put into the practical matters of how people are supposed to keep track of things at the table. The change from defender marks to defender auras in Essentials was an excellent example of how to do this kind of thing.
- Find a way to provide easily accessible building blocks for putting together interesting encounters. Dungeon tiles are an okay start, but what you really need is a means of providing interesting terrain features and configurations and such to drop into the game quickly and easily.
- The game just plain needs to do a better job of explaining itself, both for people unaccustomed to D&D’s bizarre quirks and to D&D veterans who have trouble grasping 4E’s changes. Between commentary by designers and fans, plus the actual published strategy guide, there are a wealth of tips and explanations begging to be folded into the core rulebooks. Today it would be pretty easy to put together succinct and elegant explanations for stuff like hit points, martial healing, martial daily powers, armor class, etc. that can cause trouble for some people new to the game.
Most of these are on my list of things to do with Slime Quest. (The only notable exception is rituals, because I’m aiming to have that kind of magic use fall under the skill/challenge system.) This all has me thinking about Slime Quest even more, which is how I hit on the idea of splitting the fighter into the Dragoon (an armored defender) and the Bravo (a tricky swashbuckler/striker) while reading A Game of Thrones. That in turn led me to Thief/Rogue being a Background instead of a class, which I also like. It also makes the Commander (my version of the Warlord) feel less like an alternate fighter/leader and more like one of the three fighter type classes. I really like the idea for how it dumps yet another D&D-ism in favor of something more suited to what I want to make. Fighters were always a weirdly broad class and a weirdly narrow one at the same time.
One of the stranger things in the D&D Next development process is the way the whole “Three Pillars” concept turned out. The devs posited the idea that D&D’s three main areas of play (which are equally important) are combat, exploration, and interaction. A lot of people were hoping this meant that each class would have a minimum level of competence for each of the three pillars, and that they’d be “siloed” as some put it so you wouldn’t have to sacrifice one to be good at another. Instead they’re moving towards the opposite extreme, letting the fighter be useless out of combat and such. You don’t need every character to have the means to get through every situation, but having situations where part of the group sits there and does nothing is to be avoided as much as possible for a good game experience. 4E was pretty much perfect for spotlight balance in combat, and all over the place out of combat. Some classes got screwed for skills, both with limited selections and their key ability scores being ones that limited their effectiveness with skills. Others could get really crazy with skills (especially the bard), and rituals and non-combat powers had all kinds of potential for craziness. (And again, I have to wonder what could have been if a true 4.5 had been made with the Three Pillars in mind.) The “exploration” part was never a notable part of my D&D experience (like a lot of people who didn’t seriously start playing D&D until 3rd Edition, I suspect), so for Slime Quest I tend to think in terms of the “two pillars” of combat and challenges, and it’s shaping up so that Classes emphasize combat and Backgrounds emphasize addressing challenges.
When all is said and done I think 4E brought something legitimately new to RPGs, something that doesn’t often happen in general, much less from new editions of D&D. It had its issues, but it also had a really incredible engine under the hood. For me it’s one of those games, like Apocalypse World and Maid RPG, that is going to influence everything I do that comes after it came into my life.