What 4E got Wrong for Me.

I last posted about the things 4E D&D got really right in my opinion. Some things about 4E are pretty wonderful, and it’s a fun game to play, no question — but some things about 4E still make me crazy. Like, face-palm crazy. So here’s the short version of… what 4E got wrong… in my opinion.


When I heard about 4E, and started doing research into the game, one of the design notes I read talked about the fact that characters were going to be all about their powers, not their gear – that the role of magic items was going to be downplayed in 4E. Yes there would still be magic swords, but overall, the game would not really deal with all the craziness that was 3.5 magic. And while this seemed really cool to me, since equipment was one of my least favorite parts of 3e/3.5 as well – in practice – equipment didn’t take a back seat at all.

First off, your attack bonuses from weapons/implements and your bonuses to defenses became inextricable from your magic items. I’ve complained about this quite often, both in person and on this blog, but by natural ability, a 1st level wizard (pick any first level character) is proportionately more accurate than a 20th level wizard… That is to say, at first level, a Wizard doesn’t have a magic implement, so they hit based on their natural ability – but a 20th level wizard, if you take away his wand is going to be 3 to 4 points less accurate for encounters that are on his level… by the time he gets to a +6 implement, well, better hope it doesn’t get taken away… oh, wait, it can’t – the items are so integral to the “fun” and the math of the game, that they don’t even have any disarm rules…

Now, because I’m a fair guy, I do want to point out that I loved the fact that they added the rules later for inherent bonuses, and the people working on 4E, have continued to surprise me with the interesting things they come up with. But the default assumption of 4E revolves around the math, which revolves around having just exactly so and so item at just so and so level.

And don’t get me started on wish lists…

Forced Movement

Perhaps the worst bugbear of 4E, forced movement is a disaster. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s not so bad. But once they added forced teleports – well, that was pretty much the point when I dropped out of 4E anyway, so I’m just going to express my displeasure and move on.

Skill Challenges

“So, wait, we roll initiative and now skill resolution works like combat rounds and everybody’s gotta do something..?” Yep. That’s where skill challenges started. That’s what my first set of 4E players started asking after reading the skill challenge rules.

I’m going to say this. I’ve never, ever, seen a DM use the 4E skill challenge rules and make them work well. I’ve never seen a published 4E adventure with a skill challenge in it that was remotely interesting. I’ve read all of the columns about skill challenges that appeared in the magazines and let me say, respectfully, that if I did anything like what Mearls calls a skill challenge at my table, the players would just laugh and ask when were getting back to roleplaying our game…

Skill Challenges suck.

Except, wait, they changed skill challenges. They’re all different and shiny and freeform now, with revised charts and all that stuff… Well, they are. Basically, I hate to break to all the people who have attempted to defend skill challenges to me, but what Wizards did, well, it’s just this: They took a stab at a mechanical skill resolution thingy. It didn’t work real well. So they changed it… into exactly what every good DM has been doing at their tables since the dawn of RPGs. They said, “hey, maybe players should roleplay using their skills, then the DM will, you know, decide on success and failure, and uh, we’ll call that skill challenges 2.0!”

Thanks guys, been doing that since I was 8…

But honestly, the worst offense of all in 4E is that balance is a dangerous lie, math is tough to make work out at the table, and if you give in to the power-gamers, you ruin it for everybody…

See, when 4E started, PCs were expected to have about a 55% chance to hit a balanced, on level opponent, give or take a little based on the monster’s role. And that was great. We played, we had a ball, it was no problem.

Then this funky thing called Weapon Expertise slipped into the game. And then monster defenses were lowered across the board. Now, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see PCs hitting about 75% of the time. And that kinda sucked. I could think of about a thousand ways to make powers more interesting without ramping up accuracy (well, four or five, maybe not a thousand). We played for two years and never incorporated Expertise into our games – with MM1 monsters too. Guess what? We had fun, we were awesome, and we never missed that stuff, one bit.

I read a post a few weeks back where someone was complaining that the Avenger sucked because it didn’t have any way to do extra damage… that all it got was better to-hit. Well, that’s right. The avenger does kinda suck now, because when everyone locks on like a homing missle, your class feature becomes pretty freakin’ redundant.

But I’m going to leave it there. I’ve written about the math before on this blog, said a lot of nasty things, and the fact is, I don’t hate 4E. I really enjoyed it for a long time and the worst mistake I made as a player of D&D was to spend time on the forums… god I hate gaming forums, especially the WotC forums. Shudder.

So, even though I’ve been writing about 4E a little, I’m actually playing Dragon Age these days, loving it… and I’m starting a Pathfinder game this summer because my playing group just really likes the 3rd Ed style. And the Pathfinder stuff looks great.

As always, thanks for reading.


11 responses

  1. Makes since to have this post. Got to have the Yin with the Yang.

    It’s funny that you mentioned equipment, my most recent post talks about how I fixed this in my game with what I call “Inherent Items.” So I’ll agree there, I didn’t like their system either.

    Forced movement rarely effects me as a DM and the “Thinker” players seem to love it. A saving throw is allowed to keep anything vile happening to your monsters (you can lie, that’s allowed too).

    Skill challenges… let’s just say I disagree with you. 😡

    I think the math feats need to be added as class feature at level 5. So I’ll agree with you there too, I don’t like them, but for different reasons. I think they’re a feat tax.

    Everybody knows the Avenger sucks. I’ll agree with you there too. 🙂

    So what are we at..? 3 agree’s and 2 disagree’s. Logic would have me say, “Good Post!”, but I’m a 4e fan. So, I’m sorry… that’s two failures.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree (don’t worry, I’ll keep reading).

    1. See, the funny thing is though… I’m a 4E fan too. I’ve enjoyed playing the game — and I would play it again. I’m not sure if I’d DM it again anytime soon, but I do enjoy it.

      On the subject of feat tax — well, that’s one of the reasons I think this could have been fixed in a much more elegant way.

      I’m perfectly happy to concede that if skill challenges work for you — more power to you — I just find the whole thing funny.

  2. I like 4E, and play it quite a bit, but I agree it has its flaws. I agree with everything you listed here. I’m also disappointed in the loss of exploration. In older games, every room of a dungeon could yield interest, even if there was nothing in it to attack you. Playing with magic items to see what they do, searching for traps and dealing with the aftermath after they mess you up, these things seem to have been replaced with “You meet an encounter. When you defeat it, you get X reward. Do you want to rest now or not?” Sure, you don’t have to play it that way, but that’s the way it seems to always end up for me. It’s a tactical combat game at heart, whereas older editions, especially pre-WotC, was about exploration and discovery.

    1. Well,

      I’ll admit, most of the games of 2nd ed I played (and I played 2E probably more than any other edition) were pretty much the same balance of rp/combat/exploration as my 3e or 4e experiences — but my girlfriend has a very similar view to yours, that 4e may be the greatest minis game ever created — and she doesn’t mean that in a negative way. We enjoyed the tactical combat aspects, but sometimes it did seem to overtake a session…

  3. I would have to say that this type nit-picking of rules occurs because of the real flaw of the game. The rules pre-se are not the problem – they have just become too apparent. We can no longer “ignore the man behind the curtain”.

    Early editions (and early RPGs in general) are much more rules-lite – as in they did not have rules for everything. They were not balanced – neither player vs. monster, nor player vs. player. They failed to handle in any logical fashion whole swaths of adventure related detail, and so Dms were forced to “house rule”. House rules usually feel better and more organic to those who make them. They add to a sense of investment in the game for DMs, and even players appreciate a DM who will let good sense (I don’t say common) trump the RAW.

    Now we have rules for almost every situation. They are mostly reasonable rules, or at least rational. They also (in most players minds) trump DM fiat. We have a feat (or a power) for everything, so in many cases, if you describe what you want to do – unless you “have the feat”, you can’t do it, because to allow it, would be to devalue the feat for someone who has invested in it.

    1. I’d like to think that it’s a little more than nitpicks, but I can’t fault your logic about one thing… I think you’re right that the rules are now too apparent, and I think it was a very intentional decision on the part of the designers. It may have just gone a little differently in practice than it seemed in theory.

      I disagree with the assumption that having a “rule for everything” is objectively better — but I’m not really sure that’s what you were driving at. Mostly, I appreciate a good balance between rational, internally consistent rules, player skill, and DM involvement. I mean, after all, one of my favorite games of all time — and one that I’ve played a lot, as a DM and a Player is the Amber DRPG, so, there you go…

  4. I can understand that the use of forced movement in 4e wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I really don’t get how it’s a “disaster.” All of my experience with the game has been to the effect that it’s an effective, interesting, and well-balanced aspect of the game.

    1. Well, mostly I have an issue with forced movement allowing you to teleport a guy off a cliff, or into lava, or something like that and just, you know, effectively save or die — even though 4E tried really hard to get away from that. Even allowing forced teleport to push a character 30 feet or so in the air and just drop them was really problematic. And while the allowed save helps, it’s still not really balanced well — it is by far a better option than it should be.

  5. I haven’t kept up with 4e since I stopped playing it – so my feedback is all pre-Essentials. Just a little disclaimer in case anything has been fixed in the Essentials version.

    I don’t mind forced movement. Only when it’s gets cheesy – like force transporting a monster over a cliff or straight up to let it fall and get falling damage – do I start objecting to it.

    The equipment problem I definitely agree with. Especially as a DM, I felt like the PC’s reliance upon equipment put major constraints on the type of encounters I could plan. As a player, planing a wishlist of equipment that I wouldn’t mind finding was kind of fun, but I didn’t like how much my character depended on my equipment – it defined my character almost as much as the powers I chose.

    As for skill challenges, when I first read about them, I thought it was a great idea. I thought it was a good way to allow players who were not good at role-playing to actually be able to have non-fighting successes. However, every time I have tried to run a skill challenge, or have been in one, it has felt forced and stilted. And this isn’t limited to 4e – I have noticed the same non-fluidness in the advanced tests in Dragon Age: For me, it’s the required number of successes (or in Dragon Age’s case, an advanced test target number) that make the role-playing encounter feel too mechanics heavy and not organic.

    As a new DM, I did appreciate how balanced all of the encounters were. It was easier for me to determine what would be a good challenge for my players would be (as opposed to Dragon Age, where I just TPK’d our group using Blight Owls, when they had already beaten vastly harder creatures). However, I did grow bored with the encounters in 4e: there were only so many different kinds of encounters I could build without throwing the balance of the encounter out of whack.

    Overall, I wouldn’t mind trying out Essentials, but I think I would only play it as a one-shot or couple-session-shot; I don’t think I would want to use it in a campaign again.

  6. Thanks everyone for the replies… looking forward to more.

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