An Short Return to D&D 4E — am I staying?

So, with the Essentials line effectively fully released now, I decided to take a look at it. I was an early adopter with 4E, starting with the pre-release sessions and jumping on the Player’s Handbook and DMG the day they were released. We played right up until the two year anniversary of 4E –and by then our frustration with the system (and by ‘our’ I mean my home group) and the direction the game was going in had marred the experience significantly enough that we felt the need to take a break.

Well, it’s been almost six months. I haven’t read a Dragon Magazine, I haven’t bought Psionic Power, and I stayed right the heck away from Dark Sun. After taking a look at the Heroes of the Fallen Lands (HFL) I found myself feeling a little wistful and strangely nostalgic about my first blush love of 4E. HFL actually kinda made me want to play again. I really liked the tone of the book, the way it was written, the layout (one of my primary gripes with the original PH), and overall I even felt the art was an improvement over most of 4E. In general, 4E art is the worst of any edition of the game – in my opinion.

HFL was a great book. I’m happy to say it, I really enjoyed reading it. For my money, it is what 4E should have been two years ago. Two years of play by the fan-base really exposed a lot (LOT) of foibles in 4E’s basic structure and the Essentials books are a good clean-up and reboot of 4E. And I can feel the attempt to appeal to old-school players in the books. The layout of the classes alone is a strangely compelling mixture of old-school charm and newbie-friendly design. Really diggin’ that.

Specifically, just to cover a few bases – let me mention some of the things that I really love, and some that don’t quite make the cut or still make sense to me… If this gets too long, I might split it up and talk about Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms (HFK) in another post.

What I Love
I’m a big fan of the new Fighter builds. I really like the new defender mechanics – and I really like the stance mechanics. I’ve heard people complaining that the fighter is always making the same old melee basic attack… But that makes perfect sense (to me) and I really like the stances you can choose from. I enjoy the way the fighter grows in Essentials and the way the progression works.

I’d like to say how much I like the new Cleric too, but to be fair, I still love the old cleric (as they originally worked in 4E, so it’s pretty much just more good… I love the new Rogue (Heroic Thief, awesome) and I’m a big fan of the way the Essentials Wizard works too. So, pretty much all good here.

I’m a huge fan of the single Epic Destiny for everybody (if you are playing an Essentials-only game – and for the purposes of this post I’m discussing Essentials as a stand-alone product. In fact, Essentials mixing with the original games is a big part of what I’ll talk about when I get to the things I’m not as fond of… HFL also did some nice things for the races… my beloved Dwarves finally got a Strength bonus option which makes me really happy, and the change to their second wind power is completely okay in my book. No problem. Elves, Humans and Halflings all got a little bit of stuff but didn’t change so significantly as to be weird… though I’m also really happy with the option for Elves to have an Intelligence bonus. Also made me happy.

Some of the new feats are very cool – and though I dislike the Expertise feats and always will, I also appreciate the fact that the writers turned Expertise into more than just a must have +1/+2/+3 to hit. They have a little feeling to them now, a little zest.

I’m also a pretty big fan of the changes to magic items (with one notable point I’ll mention below). There’s more in HFL that I want to mention, but that’s the gist. I’m just gonna move on to the “things that still make me crazy.”

Things That Still Make Me Crazy
Eladrin. I’m just gonna jump in with both feet and say it. Why, why, why didn’t the Eladrin bonuses become +1 Charisma, +1 Dexterity or Intelligence? That would have made so much more sense… The writers seems completely oblivious to the problem with Dex and Int as a stat pair – and the classes still don’t have a good answer to the Dex/Int pairing as a deeply useful pairing. And yes, the new stat options are great for more Wizard builds – and yes you can make a decent Fey Pact Warlock now with either the original version or the new Hexblade – but none of their pairings help them at all in becoming better at just about anything else. Of course, with the new version of the Two-Weapon Ranger you can finally be good at that as an Eladrin without jumping through a bunch of hoops. Seriously, still so frustrated with the Eladrin stats I wanna just shake the people who are writing this stuff until their teeth rattle (I’m kidding, just so you know. It’s frustrating, but I’d never threaten a game designer with tooth-rattlin’).

Magic Items. I’m a big fan of the new rarity system. I like the fact that magic is returning to a more mysterious place, a more interesting idea than 3.5’s, “Gotta get ‘em all” magic item method. My only gripe (and it’s petty, I know) is that I’d love them to have come up with a better categorization method than “common, uncommon, rare.” This nomenclature is so ingrained with collectible-game overtones it’s impossible not to feel something’s just little off describing items this way.

Also, again, my gripes with Essentials seem to turn up in odd little corners – like the fact that Fighters are locked into using Heavy Blades, Hammers, Two-Handed Blades or Axes. Why only those weapons? Why no spear wielding fighters? I realize a fighter can use whatever weapon they want, but both the Knight and the Slayer’s 7th level ability locks them into weapons of those types. I found that to be really, really odd. I’m sure it was meant to be newbie-friendly, but it ends up just being a weird restriction.

I’m also not fond of the way that some feats have been altered. Melee Training is the perfect example of this. Why did this need to change? With the new prevalence of basic attacks, most classes that use something other than strength to make basic attacks already have their alternate attribute accounted for with a class ability. So why make it weird for those that don’t – or non-essentials classes where this will still matter, like the old rogue? It’s just a change that felt pointless and restricting – again.

Overall, I really like Heroes of the Fallen Lands (and yes this got long so I’ll need to come back to the Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and the Monster Vault later). I’m not saying that I’m jumping back into 4E with both feet or anything, I’m not rushing back with open arms, all is forgiven, but I think that if Essentials had been what they released in the first place, I might not be as frustrated as I got with 4E. I don’t know. The whole experience has basically taught me, wait two years before you buy any new editions of D&D. After 3E and 4E both going that way, I’m convinced that the mid-stream adjustment is now going to be the norm from Wizards.

So, next time I’ll cover Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and try to sneak Monster Vault in there too. Just a quick spoiler – Monster Vault, love it. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, does not live up to the promise of HFL at all.

Until then, Thanks for Reading, and I look forward to your comments.


15 responses

  1. ‘ My only gripe (and it’s petty, I know) is that I’d love them to have come up with a better categorization method than “common, uncommon, rare.”’

    This categorization is in my 2nd Ed. Dungeon Master’s Guide in reference to magic items, my Monstrous Compendium in reference to likelihood of encountering, and (IDHTBIFOM) my AD&D DMG and Monster Manual – as far as I recollect. CCGs do not “own” such basic English language adverbs as common, uncommon, rare, and unique, and were certainly not the first to use them in a gaming context.

  2. Dominic

    Thanks for commenting.

    I did acknowledge that it was a small complaint. Please understand, my point was that the nomenclature of the words, their rhetorical baggage is caught up in collectible games with the current generation of gamers. At least for my home groups — the only groups I’m comfortable talking about — as soon as the initial press came out on this change, most people immediately started citing M:tG and such games.

    I certainly understand as well that Collectible games don’t “own” any words, but words pick up associations in different contexts — which is what has happened to these words in a gaming context, especially when associated with a WotC product…

    Also, I’ve played more 2E than any other edition of D&D. I have both printings of the 2E DMG and the magic items are not broken down that way as far as I can see. That’s not really important — I just wanted to look for myself because I didn’t remember it when you mentioned it.

    The only important part for me (about this particular point) is that the writers were probably aware of the possible associations the words would carry but I wish they’d chosen differently. Just my thought, I certainly don’t expect anyone else to subscribe to the same exact thinking.

    1. I understand that your point was with the nomenclature. That is the point I was replying to. I am simply saying that in the field of games, D&D has “prior art” (certainly in the 2ed monster manual for creatures, if not in the DMG for magic items). Outside of that field, I would be hard pressed to express the concepts in words other than those without sounding contrived or forced.

      “everyday, unusual, special, exceptional”?

      I think people would immediately cotton on to the fact that WotC were deliberately avoiding certain terms for the reasons you stated.

      Anyhow, check the 2ed monstrous compendium for the “Frequency” entry for creatures.

      1. Yes, I remember that monster entries had a Frequency column. It’s a completely different context though…

        As for the rest, pretty much the number one complaint that littered blogs and forums following the announcement. That the magic item drop scheme now mimics that of a CCG or CMG…

  3. While I too gave 4e a chance when it was first released it only took my group about 4-6 months to realized we were going back to 3.x and then to Pathfinder.
    There were a lot of great ideas in the system, but we just didn’t enjoy it. Essentials on the other hand is much closer to what I wish 4e had been from the start. It still isn’t perfect and I still prefer my Pathfinder games, but Essentials has finally earned 4e a place at my table. I don’t enjoy it enough to make it my default system, but it will be my back up fantasy game.
    As a matter of personal preference, I would like to see WotC take a serious look at what makes people love Pathfinder and the OSR games. Then look at the things people like about Essentials and integrate as much of that as possible into 5e.
    Which I honestly don’t think is going to be that far off.

  4. Great post! As someone who didn’t start playing until about ten months ago, I wasn’t around for the 4e launch and the disagreements about it. But it’s good to see both you and some of your commenters finding some things that you like in Essentials.

    As for the change to Melee Training, my understanding is that the old way made it too easy to have a Slayer that completely ignored Strength, just dealing massive damage based on Dexerity. Other classes such as the Battlemind that might want Melee Training (Constitution), for instance, were collateral damage. It’s not a huge deal to me, personally.

  5. I am very sad that Eladrin is still sub-par stats-wise. My first character in a 4e game was an Eladrin two-weapon ranger and I was very upset that I was ineffective compared to my group members.

    I know you will talk about Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdom later, but I am very excited with the new Scout build for the Ranger and if the other classes were handled just as well, I could be persuaded to try 4e again.

  6. I look at the Eladrin stat non-synergy as part of the balance for getting an encounter teleport power at 1st level. Yes, there aren’t a lot of int/dex builds, but humans only get one good stat too. And remember, everybody rolls initiative and everybody uses a social skill once in a while.

  7. @Geek Gazette
    I don’t want to make any predictions about 5E — but I hear you. I think that you are on the right track though, and it seems as if 4E is currently headed in the direction you want to see. They’ve definitely done some reaching back and it’s possible the designers are thinking along the same lines you are… the interviews seem to hint at this kind of thinking.

    @Online DM
    There’s a lot to like in Essentials. I don’t know if it will get me back to playing 4E regularly but there is good stuff there.

    As for the Melee Training — you’re right, it’s not the end of the world — but I actually think that changing a feat like this to avoid the problems with one build seems strange — and your explanation is the only one anyone seems to have for the change…

    @Philo Pharynx
    I’ve heard that explanation of the stat balancing against the encounter teleport from the very first days of 4E… Having seen a lot of Eladrin players who inevitably swear the race off after their first PC dies, I’m going to go on record as taking the stance that an encounter teleport does not make up for the shortcomings of their stat set-up. If you don’t want to play a spellcaster (at least, up until Essentials), Eladrin was never an optimal option for your character. (Of course, that last point is made with the understanding that I’m not including ‘concept’ in the discussion, just mechanics.

    Thanks for all the comments. Part Two tomorrow!

    1. @philo pharynx
      It never ceases to amaze me how people complain that Eladrin can’t do this, that or the other build spectacularly. The elf races were split into 3 (Eladrin, Elf and Drow) to allow a build for every class. There are even half elves. The first PHB had support for 3 kinds of elf already. There is only one kind of Dwarf – another “original” race. If you want a ranger, play an Elf. Eladrin have been super-optimized for playing magic users.

      1. @Morrison
        If a single point of modifier is all that stands between life and death then these people either have serious problems or strangely vindictive DM’s. In the games I’m in there is an eladrin rogue and an eladrin fighter. Both are very effective. Okay, the rogue gets close to death on a regular basis, but that’s more from his tactic of running in to situations first and alone. But he’s always survived. I’ve seen many other characters that are not completely optimized and haven’t seen a huge mortality increase.

        Good point. I guess Muls add a second arrow in the dwarf quiver.

  8. @PhiloPharynx
    Sorry, I didn’t say it well. It’s not the single point of modifier that is the problem. As you pointed out, Humans only get one mod. anyway… It’s the compounding problems of the poor choices of modifiers, not having any really exciting feats (unless you’re doing that Arcane Charger munchkin-tweak), and realizing that with the exception of a once-an-encounter teleport, everyone else gets cooler stuff than you. Basically, the Eladrin just isn’t worth it compared to other races.

    Simply saying the elf races were split in three isn’t really a good answer. One of the major complaints about the minotaur is getting locked into martial classes — because 4E strove to have all races work at least reasonably well with all classes. The Eladrin isn’t just “another elf” it is a distinct race, just like Dwarf or Dragonborn or Tiefling.

    And one of the interesting points to surround this is that WotC tried to fit Eladrin in as two-weapon rangers with a number of allusions to such as well as a paragon path devoted to same. Except that Eladrin were woefully inadequate as two-weapon rangers…

    1. First of all – they did in fact split Elves into Elves and Eladrin. They pointed this out in the design blogs, as well as in advice to players who play in FR (see Sun and Moon elves) – Sun Elf (or High Elf) = Eladrin, Moon Elf = Elf.

      All people have to do is choose another variant race – and bingo. An optimal race/class combo with the very same lineage, pointy ears and all. And frankly, I don’t think Tolkien-esque elves (the rangery types) could teleport either.

      Eladrin are no worse off than any other race, and better than many. At least they have a paragon class devoted to a non-optimal class.

      No race is optimal in every class, except Humans, who are Jack of All Trades status. Are you saying that Dwarves make better Wizards than Eladrin make Rangers? Or that Halflings are better Fighters, or Dragonborn better Rogues? Each race has a niche where they excel, yet they can be acceptable in many other classes, and rather difficult to build in a few classes. I believe the Eladrin is acceptable as a Ranger – not awesome, not terrible, but on a par with any other “one prime stat” ranger race.

      As to Minotaurs, I believe they suffer from lack of actual book support (so no helper feats etc). As far as I can remember, there are a number of helper feats and such for Eladrin.

  9. Not all races will appeal to everybody. Fey Step is more appealing to me than many of the other races’ abilities. Eladrin have more feats than dwarves or halflings and about as many as humans. Many of these feats are focused on non-optimised choices and give interesting options for those characters. I’m just think it’s a bit much to consign eladrin to the crap pile for all eternity over something so small as this. Their stats will only make a difference one time out of twenty compared to another race that is “optimized”. And it gets pretty dull when everybody is only playing optimized characters.

  10. @Philo
    Fair enough. Again, I can only speak for my groups’ experiences with Eladrin, but I’ve seen so many players get excited about the Eladrin, play one, and then they never play one again. The general consensus is that they are overall, the worst race in 4E (again, I am speaking for the groups I’ve played with here).

    In general, the discussion does eventually break down to player preference, that’s true — and it’s a good thing!

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