By now you've probably heard that the next version of Dungeons & Dragons has been announced. Rather than calling it 5th Edition or 5e, or anything with a numeral, they are asking that we call it D&D Next. Fair enough.
And you probably know that there are a bevy of opinions on what it will include, why Wizards of the Coast has decided to announce the new edition so early before its release (not that there is an announced release date), or whether its too early for the next edition. Sure, and I have mine on each of those subjects, as do you. Instead, I thought it would be beneficial to take a look at 4e as is, and see what works and what doesn't work, at least for our game.
In any version of D&D, combat is the most detailed portion of the game. It's the portion where most of the character's abilities are enumerated and it has the highest play time/game time ratio of the game. In short, combat matters.
Previous editions of D&D suffered from gaps where certain classes didn't have interesting things to do. Wizards are the prime example of this. A low-level mage received a few spells, some of which were devoted to combat. If the combat went more than a few rounds, they were out. And the tables turned as a wizard went up in level. His buddies, the stalwart fighter and sneaky rogue were now left to stand as the wizard would pick off opponents. Worse, the wizard's player would have to instruct the other characters to not enter melee because his awesome "Boom!" spell could hurt or kill them too.
With 4e and its concept of roles and powers, now everyone has something to do. In our group, melee is dominated by a warden and sometimes a druid. But everyone can contribute. Our striker dishes out the damage and our wizard can control just fine. Even the cleric isn't just a band-aid, but a bona fide contributor with heal spells, bonuses (buffs) and enough might to stand up for himself.
No previous edition has had as much rigor applied to it. Just the attempt speaks highly of the designer's wishes to make things balanced. Previous editions where designed intuitively or with just the barest of attention paid to values in the tables. Sure, they were play-tested, as was 4e, but the math is what makes it possible to have a balanced game.
I really like Sly Flourish's DM Cheat Sheet. It shows the (revised) math behind the system in combat. Also, the chart on pg 172 of the DM's Guide shows the math for computing proper DCs.
The point is that the designers went out of their way to make "balance" objective, or as objective as they could.
This is a bit of a red herring since all editions have had a catalog of monsters to draw upon. However, 4e has made it easy, especially with the published math, to make monsters malleable.
In old editions, monsters were divided into levels, so a high level group would rarely fight low level monsters. Once you passed a certain milestone, you didn't face those types of monsters. A level 10 party never fought kobolds (Tucker's variety notwithstanding).
3e attempted to allow scalability by making monsters and characters very similar in construction. This was a great idea, as it allowed monsters to scale with level, but monsters also had the complexity inherent in creating a character. A lot of work for something that has 2 hours of stage time. It was easier to just pull something from the catalog like the previous editions.
In 4e the monsters are very simple to create and run yet are meant to be scaled (though even here there is a practical limit to how high or low). The MM shows how to do it, and the Monster Builder makes it as easy as the push of a button. Also, while it's always been possible in other editions, 4e was the first to my knowledge that actively encouraged "reskinning" monsters.
There has been some real innovation in mechanics in RPG games, but they were mostly reserved for indie games from The Forum. For 3e the biggest innovations were the introduction of skills and the switch to a functional AC system built on ascending numbers.
As good as these were, skill rolls too often made the game hinge on one roll. Skill challenges spread the possibility of failure (and success) over a set of challenges. Also, combined with a smaller set of skills, it's more likely that people have skills that contribute rather than relying on the rogue who was the skill master in 3e.
Many will say that they used a series of rolls to determine an outcome anyways, and that skill challenges just codified what they always did. I agree, but the codification is important, and making it canon is even more important.
There have been digital tools for D&D since the first personal computers appeared in houses and dorm rooms of geeks everywhere. However, 4e was the first to have an official character generator. It was well designed and specifically made the complex character creation of 4e very easy. (Otherwise complex character creation would be on the "Things Not To Like About 4e"):
More important, 90%+ of the content within the books is available online via The Compendium. Need an 8th level set of magic armor? Search for it. Need a 5th level soldier hobgoblin? Search for it. The Compendium is an invaluable resource for players and DMs alike.
Lastly, and only just recently introduced, is the Monster Builder. With this tool the it becomes easy to scale and reskin monsters, making for easy combat.
As much as I like 4e, I'm becoming weary of many facets of it, which is why I'm so excited by the promise of what has been said of D&D Next (DDN).
None of my issues are insurmountable, and as many would say, a good GM either doesn't face these problems or works around them. I guess I'm not a good GM, though I've managed to work around them somewhat. And honestly, the system isn't the biggest inhibitor to my fun. I detail that below in Things I Would Do Now.
"Everything is core". No more core rulebooks and then expansions. It sounds like a good idea, and it certainly makes the marketing of material easy. No more questions about what you should have or shouldn't have; you should have it all!
While unabashedly a money grab, I don't think the designers and developers of D&D had that in mind (though maybe their sales department did). Instead, I'm guessing they wanted to make a game where everything was as valid as anything. Sounds reasonable, but I believe this problem was at the heart of every other problem I list below.
3e had the core rulebooks, and I had a campaign (a fun one as my players opined) that used only the core rulebooks: PHB, DMG, and MM. After looking at other material as it came out, it was easy to either dismiss it or adopt it because there was a line drawn by the system; core and optional.
4e doesn't have the same lines. As said above, a good GM can make those decisions on their own, and often do. However, having the line drawn makes it much easier. It's hard to say to a player "We don't use that class" when the system doesn't back you up. Just as it's easier to rewrite than write, it's easier to adjust an existing line than to draw a new one.
Power creep happens. That's just a fact of any RPG or game in general. As additions and expansions are made, the need to make things cooler and more enticing causes an inflation of power. However it seemed to happen much quicker with 4e. Between PHB1 and PHB2, there was noticeable power creep. Add in the various Power Books to make the original classes cool, and the race was started.
Without a line between core and expansion, it became difficult for DMs (at least me), especially new ones, to justify denying any particular class or race. I personally didn't want to have to retcon an existing character despite the wide margin in the group's "power band" .
4e does nothing to limit role playing, story telling, exploration, or any other play style. And innovations such as the skill challenge would seem to make 4e role friendly.
Unfortunately there is little on the character sheet that encourages role-playing. By putting a laser focus on abilities for combat, the bulk of the character sheet is devoted to combat. Also, reducing the skills list so sharply made it harder for characters to differentiate themselves through other methods; e.g, two rogues in 3e could look completely different through their skill selection.
A good GM can overcome these solutions, but this much focus on combat makes it more difficult. When the game focuses on a particular aspect of play, the players tend to as well.
The effects of having too many choices:
At first half of heroic tier, there are some really great options that allow a character to always be capable of doing something. By the beginning of paragon tier, there are easily 10+ items that they can do on any given round. The paralysis sets in. Even if a power isn't a candidate for use, it must be filtered.
Also, adding a 3rd action, the minor action, made things more complicated, because now I have those extra choices.
It's almost comical to watch a seasoned player still routinely shuffle through their 5 pages of character sheet to find something to do. A beginning player? Well, it can take a full minute for them to find the right thing to do. (I've taken to reminding the person "on deck" to begin searching their character sheet for what to do while the current player is tabulating results.)
Similarly, in a game where improvisation is supposed to be encouraged, having that many choices actually discourages looking outside. Our minds become so overwhelmed by the choices, that pay more attention to the character sheet than the battle. Where a player might have looked at the battle and thought "Hey, I could jump here, throw that lever, and then swing at the monster.", instead they spend more time looking at their sheet wondering what power they should use.
Choice is good in the appropriate amounts. 4e simply goes overboard .
The constant errata; this was the sore point for many people. It was evident within months that this game hadn't undergone proper play-testing, and that the new material was not receiving enough either.x
This is one thing that Pathfinder did really well. Besides building on an already stable base, they used a long beta cycle (they even _charged_ people for the beta, and people willingly paid for it). Thankfully this seems to be the planned modus operandi for D&D Next.
As I've written this essay, I've come to realize a few things about my preferred style of gaming. I am one who hates to see players at my table disappointed. If one of my players isn't having fun on a consistent basis, I like to get to the bottom of the problem.
Our campaign was troubled. Two players in our game were having a miserable time. Since becoming close to closing out heroic tier, they had become ineffectual in almost all situations. I needed to change something.
Below are the things I have changed or would like to change.
When playing with the full of D&D, it's obvious that not all classes are created equal. If you're in a group where an optimizer and a casual player have each created a character, the power difference between their capabilities can be dramatic. Consequently, the ability to create encounters and situations where both can contribute and succeed is compromised.
There are two ways to counter this, each with a drawback:
Constrain the available classes/races
The most obvious thing to do is limit the available power band (difference between two players capabilities) so that it is easier to match capabilities. With a more narrow power band, it is easier to balance encounters and challenge the players appropriately.
Having played a few adventures in Essentials Only format, I believe it to be a good baseline. Maybe it's not 4.5 per se, but it was the 2nd revision where the designers applied what they had learned.
In addition, I find that Essentials has much more of the "feel" of previous editions. The iconic classes and their capabilities are better represented within Essentials.
I could be convinced to accept other constraints, such as PHB 1 only, or PHB 1/PHB 2 with no powers books. I would have to read and study any proposal for a non Essentials constraint, but I'm sure there are acceptable limits .
The drawback to this option is of course the feeling of denial that an optimizer can feel.
A variation on constraining the system is to instead constrain the character creation. Characters should be balanced if they are all optimized. This may mean that the DM has to amp up the monsters in turn, but that's more satisfying than witnessing a player exasperated because they feel helpless or can't contribute.
It is likely that the player(s) who has the optimized character will be happy, if not ecstatic, to help the other players optimize their characters.
The drawback is that a character may have to change their "concept", but harmony in the party is worth it for most groups.
Mike Shea (@SlyFlourish) was the first (that I read) to propose the idea of capping the levels in a campaign. At first I didn't think it such a good idea, but now that I've seen "the wheels start to come off" my campaign at level 11, I can only imagine what happens at higher levels.
After Mr. Shea proposed such a level cap, a number of DMs came out against it and said that they had run epic tier campaigns with no balance problems at all. It just goes to show you that our hobby is a wonderfully unique experience for each participant.
Another reason I would perhaps cap our level is because we play so slowly that to go to 30 would take us the next 6 years. Nothing wrong with a campaign going that long, but it seems a long time for the same characters. Perhaps we could do what others have done, and just play level "snapshots", skipping every few levels.
Now we come to the biggest change I would make for my campaign: the adventures.
We started playing 4e when it first came out, in summer of 2008. I know, we're only level 10? Well, we only play a couple of hours 2/mo on average, and we've had extended periods of down time due to work crunches and other events.
We've been playing the Scales of War. I really, really liked The Shackled City and thought that the Scales of War would be of similar quality. So far, it isn't.
Oh, it's fine I suppose, but it's way too linear. I should have done what I have done in the past. I usually start with a canned adventure, but then let the campaign organically grow from that first adventure, giving diverging paths for the adventurers to choose. Following the Scales of War precisely has hampered the story and ability to weave in elements of the character's backgrounds.
I've seen lots of vitriol mounted against interrupts, and I believe almost all of it. They are one of the effects in the game that are seriously over-powered .
My first reaction was to eliminate them, but that does seem a bit harsh against the players. I think I would just eliminate damage capabilities from an interrupt or perhaps give the creature interrupted a saving throw against it. The saving throw is much easier to put in and gives the creature a decent chance of overcoming the interrupt. Of course, with all rule changes, this applies to monsters and players.
Is there a conclusion to be had from this essay, other than the opinions of another GM? I don't know, but thanks for reading this far.
I do know that I love this game and the experiences that I have with it. My son and I are deeply indebted to the game of D&D, and I believe the other two fathers and sons in our group feel similarly (even if not all the wives feel the same! :)).
I am genuinely excited about D&D Next, and the proposed changes to the game they are attempting. I'm most heartened by the upcoming play-test and the contrite attitude that the current designers have (even if I don't believe their contrition is necessary).
I am working on a follow-up essay that will contain some suggestions that I think will make DDN a great game. I'm hoping they include me in the play-test, and I'd even be willing to come to the WotC offices for "official" play-tests if they desired it.
|||By power band, I mean the statistical variance between two classes in certain situations, primarily combat. It has been my experience that it is too easy for two players in a group to be so far apart that when one is challenged where the other cannot succeed. Needless to say, this is difficult for a GM (namely me) to balance an encounter, and it hardly makes sense for one opponent to only fight a particular character.|
|||I think there is a fairly easy solution, replace powers. Rather than add new powers ad infinitum, simply keep a sane number of powers that a player may have; when a player gains a level, allow them to replace an existing power with a new one or scale up the existing power. Still, one does like a sense of progression in capability, so adding a new power every 5 levels could make sense. A 10th level character might have 5 powers instead of 10+.|
|||I use a couple of methods to determine if a group is within balance:
|||There one instance in particular that I find incredulous, the warden's mark and subsequent opportunity attack interrupt. Particularly, a warden can mark any number of opponents, including ones they move by and then away from. The idea that a warden can then interrupt an opportunity attack from an opponent not adjacent to them is ridiculous.|