What if: 4e came before 3e

In a strange parallel universe where the laws of book publication are twisted, 4th Edition D&D came out before 3rd Edition. Through a temporal digital wormhole I have received a review of 3rd Edition D&D from the perspectives of a long-term 4e D&D player called “The Gray Wolf”. I submit it here, unedited, for your perusal.

It’s been a long time coming, but at last I have the latest Edition of the core D&D rulebooks in my hands. I know there’s been a lot of speculation and rumour on the internet about whether the Powers system has survived the revision, so let’s deal with that first.

Powers. Are. Gone.

Yes folks, in this Edition there’s no Powers at all. The good folks at Sorcerers of the Coast have listened to player feedback. While Powers are great for teaching newer players how to play the game, their “cookie-cutter” nature meant that attacking with the same 4 or 5 “kewl Powerz” all the time got boring, fast. Instead, you’re on your own and encouraged to actually role-play through the combat, describing each swing and attack as you see it in your mind’s eye. While that’s always been possible with Powers, few folks did, instead just saying “I use Riposte Strike” and letting the role-play fall by the wayside. In this Edition you’ve got your character, your sword and your imagination. It’s…. liberating.

No Powers also means there’s less of a need for a battlemat and minis. Whilst that style of play is possible – and encouraged – by the ruleset, it’s also very easy to play without as an entirely “in your head” experience. Congratulations to SoTC for creating a truly Internet-friendly Edition of D&D. This is a game that can be played via IRC, email or even Twitter. Thank you thank you thank you!

It is also an Edition of D&D that steps away from the combat-intensive and more console-gamey style of play and gives us a purer and (dare I say it?) old-school rpg experience. The skill list has been expanded to include skills that aren’t directly applicable in combat including (at last!) Ride. We’re also given the meta-skills of Craft, Perform and Knowledge which further subdivide depending on type of craft, performance style or area of Knowledge. Arcana, Nature, History, Religion and Dungeoneering all fall under the Knowledge meta-skill, and they’re joined with Architecture, Geography, Nobility – or anything else you can imagine. All in all, the expansion of the skill list means character generation can focus as much on what the character can do outside combat, as well as in the thick of battle. I like.

On to the specifics themselves.

In the Players Handbook we’re given 7 Races with a few changes to the line-up. Eladrin are (thankfully) gone, having been subsumed into a single Elven race entry. If you want to play Gray Elves (the new, and IMHO better name for Eladrin), you’ll find them in the Monster Manual instead. This fixes the “too many elves!” criticism of the PHB. We still have half-elves though, and they’re largely the same diplomats who walk between the two races we known and love.

More surprisingly, Tielflings and Dragonborn have also falied to make the cut, having been replaced with the Half-Orc and Gnome. I suspect that the Gnome’s popularity has elevated it to core Race status, and it’s good to see the Half-Orc there too as a noble savage – again, this shows that this Edition’s focus is on role-playing rather than kewlness. Still, the cynic in me expects there’s plans for supplements all about the “missing” Tiefling and Dragonborns in the near future.

When it comes to classes there’s – get this – ELEVEN of them, right from the start, including the Druid, Monk and Barbarian! The Warlock and Warlord are gone, though as with the Dragonborn I’d expect to see there return soon.

One word of warning – characters in this Edition of D&D are a LOT less powerful that we’re used to! A 1st level character will have only a handful of Hit Points and there’s no fiddly Healing Surge tracking to keep him alive. According to the designers that’s intentional at it opens up a whole new avenue of gritty, low-level, street-level play between levels 1 to 4. If you want to play a character comparable in abilities to your existing Edition character, start at 4th level.

Me, I’m excited by the possibilities of street-level play where the players must rely on their wits rather than swish Powers to solve a situation. Bring it on!

Over in the Monster Manual, things have changed too. We’re given far more information about the ecology and nature of each creature, and even without Powers the statblocks have doubled in length! I’m not sure this is a good thing, and it certainly looks much more complex to create your own monsters in this Edition. I’d expect more GMs to try it, once, then stick to what’s on the page. Oh, and Dragons are SCARY! We’ve got them right back at the top of the tree again just where they belong. They look a lot more complex to run than the Dragons we know and love, but that at least should solve the problem of every scenario ending with a Dragon Fight :D

Finally, there’s the DMG. It’s a good, solid tome but seems to be lacking somehow. There’s no ready-made setting, no ready to run dungeons and nothing to kickstart the game right form the start. What we do have is the Magic Items here instead of in the PHB. In some ways that’s a good thing because it means the DM can keep their secrets all to himself, but I know the players are going to miss picking their magic goodies for higher-level characters without the GM looking over their shoulder.

One last mention has to go to the Open Gaming License. SoTC have created something truly remarkable by opening up the entire game system (barring a few proprietory name and terms) to third-party developers. This, more than anything else, is going to drive the RPG industry forward for years to come. It’s forward thinking like this that has put SoTC right at the top of the industry, and it’s what will keep them there. I pray they never change.

Overall, this Edition of D&D is one to watch. Less combat focused, more role-playing intensive and….. dare I say it….. more fun?

Only time will tell.

22 Comments on “What if: 4e came before 3e”

  1. Hahahaha! Oh man, that’s hilarious! It’s a pity no one in “SotC” could take a look at this before 4th Ed.

    Thumbs up.

  2. Frankly I’m surprised you left out a few things:

    – Don’t even TRY playing this new edition beyond level 14, the numbers just STOP making sense. They should have just capped the game at that level, instead of going to the ridiculously unmanageable level of 20. I hope they’re not planning even HIGHER levels, that would just be ludicrous. I do wish being able to play all the way through the epic tier, completing amazing fantastic feats with one character the whole while without feeling like I’m studying algebra.

    – Multiclassing in this game is a lot more flexible system, but it seems like nearly everyone will be using it to the point that a pure single classed character will be the huge minority.

    – Save or Die effects are back.

    – Roll a Cleric.


    Bartoneuss last blog post..D&D 4e: New Encounters

  3. That was very enjoyable. Fun post, Greywulf. Thanks!

    @ Bartoneus:

    Yeah, it’s not a new observation, but I was playing a 3.5 archer a while back, and even at level 12 the many dice I was rolling every round on a full attack was, well, highly-effective, but oh-so boring. I definitely prefer low-level play in 3.5.

    With that said, I think Greywulf’s making a very poignant (if satirical) comment when he mentions the same 4 or 5 kewl powers… I haven’t played enough of it yet to pound any nails, but hearing the same words out of my players every round of combat has really made me yawn.

    You’re dead-on about multiclassing, though, which is a real shame. I’ve only played a few prestige classes, and I’m looked at as an oddity when I bring out my PH core-only characters. Personally, I think that’s the price we paid for infinite customization. :)

    RPG Ikes last blog post..Fighting Golems and Swarms

  4. Well played, Greywulf. Well played indeed. I salute you.

    Though you forgot the part where you laud the incredible range of names and purposes that 3.x features with its magical items. Spoons that ensure you’ll never go hungry? Crab-submarine things? Weapon types that aren’t just the same four over and over and over? Magic items that show uniqueness and might have–gasp–story behind them? (Though granted, I’ll miss the terrible jokes my group got out of the Orb of Imposition.) Yes, please!

    Ravyns last blog post..Interlinking Gods and Domains

  5. @All Good to see this taken in the spirit it was intended :D Much as I love 4e (and, as GM, definitely wouldn’t like to switch back), I thought it would be interesting to see 3e through a 4e player’s eyes. Turn the spin the other way, so to speak.

    More to follow!

  6. Great one, Gray Wulf. May I add two in a similar vein.

    1. Things are more intuitive now, if mechanically more complicated. When you move diagonally, you count every second moved square as if you’ve moved two squares. Makes sense. Also, squares are called “5 foot steps” now. Weird. But I love how it alters talk at the table. Also, burst and blast spells (slightly renamed) now have more intuitive shapes. No more spherical blast spells having square shapes – God knows how we ever endured such nonsense for the past 8 years.

    2. God I love the new math. Just love it. Ever felt that critical hits never earned that epiphet? I mean, you score a “critical”, and all you get in place of 1d8+2 was a 10? How great is that? I rolled a 20 man, a damn 20, and all I am given is a lousy 3 extra points above the average result? Guess what. The guys at SotC have come up with a really elegant solution. Criticals get rarer, but all the more special. You first “confirm” (meaning, you roll an extra attack roll), and if you hit again you score – not just measly 3 extra points, but DOUBLE or – take that – TRIPLE damage! Wow! Genius. I just love the math: they reduced the frequency of criticals by 50%, and then made them 200% more special. It’s simple, elegant, and really brings a superior experience at the table.

  7. @Windjammer: I really have to contend that last one on criticals, it’s clearly written only considering the first level or two of play in 4E. Once you get a magic weapon the critical damage goes up by a lot and it can’t be reduced to a “measly 3 extra damage”. That and calling added rolls and complications, not to mention creatures that are completely immune to crits, I’d hesitate in calling something like that more simple and elegant.

    Bartoneuss last blog post..Play Auditorium

  8. @Bartoneus: point taken :) If the amount of die increases at higher levels (not to mention sneak damage) the 4E mechnic has a point. And you’re right to point out how magic items grant extra damage die as well.
    @Greywulf: yes, I’ll keep them coming. Here’s number 3:

    3. Goodbye to standaridized game complexity! Remember how all classes played equally hard/equally easy? Well, that’s gone now. If you got a newbie player keen to join a group of 10th level players, he need not flip through a half dozen of pages to make up his choices. He can play a class with considerable more ease – e.g. a fighter. On the other side, if someone wishes to amp up on the mechanical complexity, the wizard received a considerable overhaul. I think this will appeal to long time players who wish more variety in their gaming when trying out new classes. I mean, switching from rogue to ranger wasn’t that exciting in the last edition, but it now makes a world of a difference.

  9. Awesome post! While I don’t agree with everything (for instance, I love the interchangeability of monsters and classes), I think this is a great take on the two editions. Definitely an original and amusing way of doing it.

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