D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

WOC2173672_500Strap 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.

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11 thoughts on “D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

  1. My biggest problem with d&d4 was that it didn’t feel like an evolution. It felt like it came from entirely different stock. I don’t play MMORPGs, but I do play board games and the new iteration felt like a board game with plot bolted on. I hope d&d next takes us back to the game’s roots.

    1. As I see it, the trouble with taking D&D “back to [its] roots” is that it’s never entirely clear *which* roots one is talking about. 4E is y no means only edition that done a complete about-face with respect to the game’s basic mechanical premises. It’s happened several times in the course of the game’s history, from OD&D’s logistics-driven driven exploratory dungeon-crawling, to 1E’s focus on module-based tournament play, to 2E’s schizophrenic toolkit approach, to 3E’s elaborately interlocking “world simulator” mechanics. Really, “edition” is a bit of a misnomer when you’re talking about D&D.

      1. Yeah, that’s a really big thing. People really do seem to have forgotten how big of a change 3rd Edition was, and how much people lost their shit over it. The edition wars that sparked in 2008 over 4E’s release were in almost every way a rerun of the edition wars of 2000 from 3E’s release, right down to the video game comparisons (Diablo). No other game has been more things to more people than D&D.

    2. One of the biggest pitfalls with taking D&D ‘back to the game’s roots’ is just what those roots *are*: Miniatures wargaming.

      Remember, the oldest editions of D&D, as we played it back in the 70s and 80s, was just a refinement of Chainmail, with some additional social mechanics bolted on.

      In that respect, D&D only briefly got away from those roots with 2nd Ed’s attempts to make everything a kind of a’la carte progression, but 3/3.5e and 4e definitely have a very ‘tabletop miniatures combat + hey aren’t you roleplaying between fights?’ feel to them.

  2. I’d be leery about introducing too many out-of-combat fiddly bits into a hypothetical 4.5E. Many of 4E’s strengths derive from the fact that it has the tightest mechanical focus of any D&D iteration since OD&D; it’d be perilously easy to lose more than one gains by diluting that focus.

    1. I don’t know about how perilous it is, but you are right that the designers would have to make sure to strike the right balance.

  3. After playing 4E, I decided it wasn’t for me (it was mostly just that I wasn’t interested in the style of tactical combat it offered), but I can appreciate a lot of things in its design. And you aren’t exactly the only indie designer I’ve seen that it’s provided inspiration to. I really do feel like 4E should get its dues more for its slicker ideas.

    Though I’m not into sports at all, I liked the Mark concept for fighters because I could pretty much easily envision it as basically opportunity attacks on steroids–the fighter punishes you for not focusing on them. They make diverting your attention to someone else an unattractive prospect. It was very easy for me to see happening in the fiction.

    I was pretty disappointed in the utility power selection and the ritual system, yeah (though it was surprisingly cool that it made rituals available to anyone with the right feat). I just tended to favor characters with interesting noncombat capabilities.

    Speaking of inspirations you named, Apocalypse World was basically a great flash of insight for me, though I didn’t really get into it until Dungeon World (but I’m appreciating the original system much more now, as well as its assorted offshots). My current WIP attempt to make a magical girl game is pretty much an AW hack, and I’ve pretty much turned to Dungeon World as my staple system for D&D-style fantasy (though I ended up dropping a rule or two I saw as unnecessary, and the Wizard in my game changed to a fanmade Mage class without Vancian spellcasting).

  4. Just now creating my first character using 4e. Totally rediculous. Hours spend figuring out all of the frigging MODIFIER SHIT. Way too many modifiers. No place on the record sheet to record simple things like type of armor, weapon etc. Do these “designers” ever sit down and pretend like someone new to the game and keeping this shit simple instead of all of the over complicated mechanics. No wonder RPG games are dying for mindless computer games. WAY OVER COMPLICATED!!! Reminds me of Warhammer and 40K rules….gradually they have piled heaps of rediculous modifiers and specialty rules to the point the game is a nightmare to play and keep track of. End of rant……

    1. On the one hand 4e does have a lot of fiddly bits to keep track of that they could’ve easily done more to keep under control (and which they did to some extent in the 4e-derived version of Gamma World), but on the other hand the other big RPGs right now are games like Pathfinder, Exalted, and the Warhammer 40K RPGs, so 4e isn’t exactly alone in having complex, fiddly rules. As I mentioned in this blog post, the WotC designers do kind of live in a “D&D bubble,” and while they do play and read other games, they’re also deeply immersed in the D&D fandom pretty much all the time. They hear so much from the guys on their own message boards and EN World that people like you who want simpler rules kinda get drowned out. It does get easier as you climb the learning curve, but there’s certainly no shortage of simpler games out there.

      I’m really looking forward to seeing more RPGs like Funhaver Games’ “Last Stand” that draw inspiration from 4e’s good points while having simpler rules and more thought given to how to handle things at the table.

      1. Honestly, It wasn’t the rules. I could have lived with the NPCs are now Bots and can’t see through open doorways. I could get past the alignment nerf. It wasn’t any of that. It was the rampant disrespect for the players.

        Did you ever see that South Park episode where George Lucas rapes Indiana Jones? In The Ass? On a Pinball Machine? Makes him squeal like a pig? Substitute WotC for Lucas and Forgotten Realms for the Indiana Jones franchise. You’d be -close- to what I think about what WotC did.

        Every time someone says “post-spellplague” aloud, an angel has it’s wings ripped off and it is forced to eat them. The Angel’s mother has to watch. And for some reason, it arouses her.

        Baby Jesus doesn’t cry when someone mentions 4th Edition Forgotten Realms. Baby Jesus becomes numb to the voices and starts googling wholesale fertilizer and where to find truck rentals that don’t require photo ID.

        Words cannot express the depths of my hatred for WotC. I do not wish them death, but life. A long life. A long life trapped in bodies of disease ridden flesh. A life prolonged by unholy and eldrich sciences so they can suffer agonies that will equal the innocence they devoured in a cold, calculated fashion for no other reason then a desire to suck every last dollar out of the franchise and burn the setting to the ground on the way to cash their bonus checks.

        They Murdered every character they didn’t have copyright to. They changed the map because they didn’t want to pay royalties. They moved it a hundred years into the future so they could re-package every single book in the name of Greed.

        If anyone at WotC happens to read this, pay attention.

        We’re not stupid.

        I mean, as a whole, gamers who game using RPGs that aren’t WoW-like, where we work out the calculations on paper or on a computer by hand, that takes brains. Sure, there are cookbook doods who just wait for someone to post a kewl combo, but even those guys like to tear things apart and put them together. We’re smart. We figure things out. Even as socially inept as some of us are, we are all brilliant in some way or we wouldn’t be playing this game.

        We know when you are being greedy. We know when you don’t care and are writing books based on “demographics”. We know when you are “making bold new changes” just to get rid of copyrighted material. We know when you listen to marketers and not to the people who actually play the game. Or worse, when you only listen to the bubble of people that agree with you. Then you are oh-so upset when we don’t play your game “right”. It must be something wrong with US. It can’t be YOU.

        You don’t have to be afraid of taking chances. We’ll forgive you for mistakes as long as it’s with the best of intentions. The whole 2nd edition Godsfall Plotline? That sucked. It really blew chunks. Mystra dies trying to climb some stairs? Really? The best possible choice for the god of magic is Midnight? Really?

        You tried to convert the books into modules. I get it. But you tried. I can see the sincerity in the attempt.

        If someone said, “I have a bold new vision and it involves this thing called the Spellplague!” and meant it, we’d know. Because if you really meant that this Spellplague was going to be cool, you’d figure out a way for the DMs to run it, instead of just saying, “Annnnnnnd… TheSpellPlagueHappensAndEverythingChangesAnd
        NowItsAHundredYearsLaterAndDon’tYouWannaBuySome
        OfTheNewBooksTheyAreSoCoolWhatDoYouMeanYou
        HaveIssuesYouAreAFoolForNotInstantlyLovingThisOur
        DemoGraphicsAndMarketingDepartmentSaysSo!”

        I guess D&D used to be like Microsoft. They made sure everything was backwards compatible, so the game had a great deal of legacy rules holding it back. 2nd Edition was a nice upgrade to the OS, but it still had a whole lot of artifacts that held the game back.

        3rd edition Was like switching to Unix. Unix was the scaffolding that was going to be used to build the great unified OS that reached the heavens. But programers found the scaffolding itself so damn useful, that they never got around to building it. 3rd and 3.5 were like that. It wasn’t the great gaming system that they wanted, but it was an excellent scaffold to build great games, each one to every player’s needs. Yes. Instead of reaching heaven, we squatted in the kibble. But we liked it there. It was home.

        Then someone at WotC said, “Hey! Look at Apple! Let’s be like Apple!” Well, in order to BE like apple, you need a “Steve Jobs”. You need one man to lead and he has to be completely insane, or visionary. Most likely both. He has to desire nothing short of perfection at any cost.

        WotC clearly had a bottom line. They clearly had a budget. They didn’t have one leader. They didn’t have a vision. They had a business plan. WotC is not apple. They are more like apple when Steve Jobs left and they tried making the apple clones. You know, THE DARK TIMES.

        I mean, that’s all a Gaming system is, an Operating System. A very slow and adaptable Operating System. But if you take away adaptability, you had BETTER be amazing. Apple takes away choices from it’s users, but the choices it gives people are AWESOME. WotC took away choice, and gave… lame.

        So, we got D&D Next coming up. They are taking their time. They are doing it “right”. Some how, I fear the only lesson they learned is, “They figured out we’re greedy bastards full of crap because we tried too much too fast. This time, let’s go slower. Wait a few years. They’re idiots. They’ll forget.”

        Hope I’m wrong. I’ll take a look at it when it comes out. However, I fear not only is WotC still a bunch of greedy bastards, but that they’re right. We are idiots. We will forget. Then this whole thing will happen all over again.

        (BTW, Ewen, is it? Blaming those people playing 3.5 from screwing up 4th isn’t the best way to get on my good side. Remember the first rule of communication. It’s not what you say, it’s what your audience hears. I heard you call me the reason why 4th edition sucked. That’s ALL I heard.)

      2. Bob:

        Hey, so I know you came here from GitP, where someone linked to this post (from nearly a year ago BTW) in a thread with a really bizarre mischaracterization of the intent of this post at least in the thread title. (Over 100 hits on an old post shows up pretty clearly in my site stats.) I don’t “blame” anyone for 4e because although I recognize it has some flaws, I don’t think it’s a bad game in the first place. Where I do find fault in it, those are largely in the places where the designers fell short of what they were attempting, not in the design choices themselves per se. You obviously feel differently about the game, and that’s fine in itself, but you seem to be mischaracterizing the intent and tone of this blog post, as well as for some reason venting about edition war stuff that I’ve literally read hundreds of times over.

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