Fourth Edition D&D Long Term Test: But is it D&D?

One of the most frequent complaints against Fourth Edition D&D has been that it’s…. well, not D&D at all. Barely a week goes by that someone out there posts it as a comment on this or some other blog and to be honest, I wish they’d just stop. Enough already!

It’s not smart. It’s not clever. And it’s not true.

Yes, of course 4e D&D is Dungeons & Dragons. It has all the hallmarks of the D&D brand – class-based character progression, hit points, Armour Class and to-hit rolls, Orcs, Otyughs, Mind Flayers, magic and all the things that make D&D what it is. Yes, including Dungeons, and Dragons. Heck, it even says D&D on the cover.

The question though is whether it’s a version of D&D you want to play. I like it (though didn’t initially, I’ll confess) and whether you do too is entirely up to you, and that’s cool. Y’see one of the strengths of D&D as a whole is that there are many different editions of the game out there (about 11, by my count) and they all play slightly differently. From the purity of the original White Box set to the complexity of 2nd Edition AD&D and the Power system of 4e D&D they all have their strengths, and their supporters.

I’m pretty sure that when 2e AD&D came out there were detractors who claimed it wasn’t D&D any more – the lack of an ubiquitous internet made it difficult for them to be heard so vocally back then. I certainly remember the slavering hordes at the gate who hated Third Edition when that came out. I suspect that the majority of folks who claim that 4e isn’t D&D are people who got into game with Third Edition. 3e is “their” edition of D&D, and all others are clearly inferior. At the risk of sounding superior (I ain’t!), we gamers who have been around the block since the earliest days of Classic D&D know better. Or if we didn’t, we should.

Just as no one would claim that 2nd Edition AD&D “wasn’t D&D” now, it’s dumb to say the same thing about Fourth Edition. Dude, it’s all D&D. Embrace the choice!

But back to 4e. Leaving the Powers system to one side for the minute (don’t worry – we’ll get to it soon enough), Fourth Edition is one of the most streamlined versions of D&D ever made. The races are well put together, the classes are distinct and flavour-filled and there’s no class which is stronger or weaker than all the rest. The skill system “just works” and multi-classing at last differentiates between a Fighter/Rogue and a Rogue/Fighter – the two are completely different whereas in Third Edition the only difference was the number of skill points at first level. Only a fool would take Fighter as their 1st level class and bolt Rogue on afterwards. Now, you can pick the base class according to concept and style.

I’ve said it before – without the Powers system, 4e D&D is an utterly brilliant role-playing engine. It’s lean, sleak and gorgeously put together. Add the Powers system in, and it’s kickass when it comes to combat too.

Y’know what – I’ve said enough for now, so I’ll talk about Powers, next time.

25 Comments on “Fourth Edition D&D Long Term Test: But is it D&D?”

  1. I started with AD&D, played 2nd edition for years, enthusiastically moved to 3rd and played that for years, and moved to 4th enthusiastically but stopped playing it after a few weeks of games. I’m just one counter-example to the idea that D&D players who aren’t 4e fans started with 3e, and I know how stats work, so take that data for what its worth. :)

    As for why I dropped it so quickly: it has all the bits that make up D&D, but that difference in how it plays—how the bits are put together and how a particular play style emerges from them in the hands of a particular group—with my group didn’t turn out to be the D&D I’d been playing for years through the previous edition changes. The differences in play styles between the other editions altered things that weren’t central to my desire to play D&D so I happily made those transitions, but the things that 4e altered were at or near the core of how I played D&D.

    That is what I’ve taken from the editions wars, and it’s a valuable lesson: everyone has used the rich stew of ideas and mechanics in the long history D&D in different ways and different proportions, and the editions a particular gamer like and dislike have everything to do with those personal details and very little to do with whether the edition is “good” or not. It’s impressive how much variety of playstyles a single edition of D&D can support.
    .-= d7´s last blog ..A comment on POD and shipping =-.

  2. …. well, not D&D at all. Barely a week goes by that someone out there posts it as a comment on this …

    Or that someone posts an “Oh no it is!” article ;)

    I always use the statement “Its Not D&D (To Me)”. See for more of my take on this.

    There are lots of traditional D&D elements in the game but also a lot that have gone missing.

    For 30 years the Cleric was the center of character healing and was a distinctive aspect of the game. Now it is all but gone.

    For 30 years the magic user was (just about) the only class who could do mass area of effect attacks. Now every class has some form of burst attack.

    For 30 years the you got your spells / powers back after a nights rest. Now some come back straight away or in five minutes or the next day.

    There is an awful lot of changes to core D&D themes in 4e but it is a purely personal take on the game whether these things matter.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Six Dee Six = Miniatures Photo Gallery =-.

  3. @d7 Thanks for the feedback! I agree, 4e D&D as written does present a very different playstyle to previous editions and whether that fits with how you want to play is purely a matter of personal taste. We play a much looser game which is closer to old-school “in your head” gaming than 4e (or 3.5e, for that matter) advocates. We now only use battlemats about 25% of the time, and I foresee a point where we stop using them altogether.

    @Chris With every edition there’s always some elements which fall by the wayside and new elements which appear. I remember the outcry when Clerics began to get spells at 1st level and level limits were removed from demi-humans.

    I agree that Clerics aren’t the near-monopoly on healing they once were, and imho that’s a very good thing – it means they’re no longer one trick ponies and can actually shine in their own right as fully rounded characters. Having a Cleric (or some form of healer-type) in your party still seriously improves your survivability but other PCs are at least expected to be able to take care of themselves!

    When it comes to Wizards they still have the big guns with the range and ability to affect tons of foes with a single spell, but other classes gain a little more flexibility too. You won’t see a Longsword-wielding Fighter lob a Fireball any time soon (at least, not in my game!) but they now have far more combat options than just “I hit it”. For me, that’s a big win.

    As I said though, each to their own. It’s one more edition of D&D to choose from, and it’s great that there’s a whole range to choose from to find the gameplay they want.

    Now, if only Wizards of the Coast would get off their fat asses and publish re-issues of earlier editions. I can but dream.

  4. If I can make an analogy (since I haven’t actually been gaming long enough to experience an edition change), it’s a bit like Doctor Who. David Tennant is my Doctor, which means when Matt Smith was announced, I despised everything about him. Him, his costume, the new logo, everything. Just because he wasn’t my Doctor.

    The difference between the Doctor wars and the Edition wars is that Matt Smith won me (and from what I gather, quite a few people) over after a few seconds on screen, while some people are still fighting about how 4th Edition isn’t D&D, well over a year and a half later.
    .-= Aaron´s last blog ..[The City] A Brief Introduction =-.

  5. And on the other side of the fence “For 30 Years, we’ve had all these tropes in place for what D&D is. If I wasn’t happy with those in the first place, why the hell do I want to buy another edition reciting those 30 years?”

    It’s not my feelings 100%, but it is the feelings of a lot who play under me.
    .-= Rev. Lazaro´s last blog ..[STO]The Chaos Log — Diving In =-.

  6. I started with 4e and oddly enough, 3.5 “isn’t D&D” for me. I suppose that, like those who went the other way, there were certain aspects that I got attached to that I miss in earlier versions. I like everybody being useful, I like things being balanced, I like everybody having cool special abilities (although I do think that everybody gets way too many choices at higher levels).

    Then I tried out 3.5. High level wizards destroy all the enemies while other classes twiddle their thumbs. Fighters have too few options while spellcasters have way, way too many (and players spend 15 minutes figuring out what they want to prepare). To me, 3.5 isn’t what D&D is about because it’s not about groups of heroes working together; it’s about a few powerful heroes and their lackeys.

    All that said, I know that 3.5 really is D&D because it’s written there on the cover. And let’s face it, I don’t have much weight saying that it’s not. So I find it strange that people attempt to say that 4e is not.

  7. Every “I didn’t like 4e at first and now I do” post makes me very happy, not just because I’m a huge fan of the system, but because it shows that there’s people out here on the interwebs who are still capable of changing their minds about something. So thank you for that.

    I find it interesting that some people say “It’s lacking feature X which previous editions had, so it’s not D&D to me” without stating why feature X was a good thing. They don’t say (to steal an example from another comment) “I really liked that only clerics could heal because it made them unique,” they just say, “Clerics used to be the only ones who could heal and that changed.”

  8. @Swordgleam: I avoided going into laundry lists in my first comment, but I can answer that for myself a little bit.

    There are a lot of small things than 4e is missing or does slightly differently than previous editions, but one of the most prominent is the way it puts balance at a very high priority.

    Why I like a degree of imbalance (not a whole lot, else I’d play RIFTS) is that the balance in 4e revolved around combat effectiveness, which highlights it. I previous editions (especially pre-3e) balance wasn’t maintained, and so characters were inequally effective in different circumstances. That made it much more interesting to have those different circumstances show up in play.

    That might seem minor and ignorable when playing a story, but it’s not. A contemporary example might underscore why large amounts of inequality in different things matters so much: Imagine a cop show where the scholarly doctor who works in the morgue was equally bad-ass in a fight as the hard-bitten sergeant who spends his weekends at the shooting range, and even sillier, that the sergeant was almost as good at healing people as the good doctor.

    Because I like games of D&D that aren’t combat-combat-combat, equal skill and opportunity to be cool in combat are not only unnecessary, but frequently counter-productive: having that combat-combat-combat emphasis during chargen and levelling focuses our heads disproportionately at the combat.

    So that’s my answer to why feature X that’s missing in 4e (combat imbalance) is good for my games. (Emphatic emphasis on “for me!” :) )
    .-= d7´s last blog ..A comment on POD and shipping =-.

  9. Fourth edition is D&D in the same way that the current dodge charger is a dodge charger — that is to say, it’s not the General Lee.

  10. @d7: ” Imagine a cop show where the scholarly doctor who works in the morgue was equally bad-ass in a fight as the hard-bitten sergeant who spends his weekends at the shooting range”
    I see you’ve been watching Bones.

    I understand that example. I don’t especially agree with it, but I can see why it’s valid for you and your playstyle.

    The main impetus behind my comment wasn’t that I don’t always understand why people don’t like the changes, but because I’m not sure THEY always understand. The way most people phrase it, it sounds more like “there was a change an it’s bad because it’s different” than “they removed this aspect of play that I enjoy.”

  11. @all I’m just sitting back munching popcorn and enjoying then constructive comments from both sides right now. Keep ’em coming!

    I will say one thing though – if anyone still doesn’t think 4e D&D is a kickass awesome role-playing game, watch out for the next write-up for my Endday Campaign session tomorrow! You might just change your mind. Maybe.

  12. I ran a 4e game once and from a DM’s perspective, I love it. Most of my players, grognards every one of ’em, were on the fence. Two compared it to World of warcraft (which I never played).

    Frankly speaking, if I were to play any edition, I would like to play 4th. I love the way all the characters are balanced. No more useless classes at particular levels. There is some adapting that I have to do as a DM. For example, I can no longer award individual players with experience points as I want all players to level evenly. I have gotten around that by awarding players with action points and in-game rewards such as land grants, and favors owed by powerful NPC’s. I also bought the DMG 2 (4th ed.) and I am considering using the boons options presented therein as an alternative to magic items. I don’t particularly like the fact that Magic items are right in the player’s handbooks but I think that’s just my old-school DM’ing style speaking (actually, when I first saw that, I was horrified!) but now I encourage my players to make plans for their characters. I will be asking them if they prefer boons or magic dewdads including legacy style items that grow in power as they grow in levels. If I give them magic gear, i will try to make it fit with their character and not just randomly throw in some useless crap that hey will hock at the next merchant stall.

    Once thing about the new system doesn’t quite sit well with the is the ability score bonuses and penalties. Since defenses are now based on the better of two stats, there is no longer any consequence to having a dump stat excepting the penalty to skill checks. But overall I really do appreciate the new system.

    As for my style of play, it is unchanged by the new rules. My DM’ing style has always grown in a certain direction and that is toward a story like campaign driven by the characters. I like to present my players with many options that they can use to flesh out their PC’s. I try to create adventures around the characters and based on their decisions. I am looking forward to challenging them further in the future.

  13. “. . . . the classes are dictinct and flavour-filled and there’s no class which is stronger or weaker than all the rest.”

    That’s one of my pet peeves. That is the sorriest thing I’m sorry about. So many people complained about Class (im)balance in earlier editions that Wizards listened and did this. It wasn’t something I complained about, at all, though.

    In fact, I just accepted it. After all, everyone on Earth aren’t born into balanced circumstances. But we all have one gift in common though. So, when the classes were balanced against each other i had to do a double take.

    What did we do?

    I prefer an imbalance in my gaming. Some are better educated (like the Wizard), some are stronger, and other people have different opportunities. It all balances out in the end.

    I have many systems under my belt. All of them do the same job with different rules. Real Life(tm) is fun, true. It has its ups and downs, and some people have better circumstances than others. But this thing about 4e has just rubbed me wrong. It’s just wrong.

    Thus, it’s one of my peeves. and really, I don’t know what to do about it but play an earlier edition of D&D. I still don’t have the books, so I can’t houserule imbalance back into it without knowing how it works in the first place.
    .-= EltonJ´s last blog ..Atlantis: the Movie? =-.

  14. When 4E was announced I was very excited and before I actually played it, I liked it very much. And I still agree that if you disregard the powers it’s a very streamlined version of D&D and probably one of the best implementations of the d20 System. Alas immersion in the game just goes out of the window when combat starts (at least for me). While I think the powers system basically was a cool idea, I just don’t like the way it works in the game. Perhaps a Microlite version of D&D 4E could convince me to give it another chance. ;)
    .-= Stargazer´s last blog ..Lazy Saturday Video post: “Everything I need to know I learned from D&D” =-.

  15. Looking forward to the powers post! All this 4e talk is making me nostalgic already. The system really is damn smooth to run, even with powers.

    The immersion unbreaker for powers could be making the mechanical text more flavorful by suggesting broad actions that could match it, while making the flavor text more generic and open to player interpretation.

    On the tabletop I was getting everyone to white out and completely ignore the flavor text and power name and come up with their own based on the mechanics and what matched their character. It worked pretty good to unbreak immersion, I think it actually enhanced it somewhat
    .-= Mike(aka kaeosdad)´s last blog ..Bad gamer! Bad! =-.

  16. @Swordgleam: I don’t know what Bones is. I just pulled a couple of cop-show tropes out of a hat. :)

    I take your point well: a lot of people have a reaction to 4e that’s uninspected. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my own reaction and learning from it, which has been surprisingly difficult. I’ve found that it is also surprisingly hard to articulate observations about how 4e ticks and the personal incompatibilities with it. I think that some of the people who don’t seem to understand their own reaction to 4e just can’t find the words. I’m not sure what proportion that is though.

    But aside from that, what part do you disagree with? That 4e classes are very combat-facing seems to fall under the category of a fact of the system rather than something that emerges from personal incompatibility. Or do you disagree with my implication that it’s a bad thing? (That’s definitely under personal preference and I’ll only claim “it’s bad for me”.)
    .-= d7´s last blog ..A comment on POD and shipping =-.

  17. It isn’t D&D. There are plenty of games without that name on the cover that are more D&D than 4E. For many of us, it is a fraud. A pretender to the D&D throne.

    WOTC got arrogant and went too far, indulging in their hobby horses and imposing personal design ideologies under a banner they don’t deserve. And it’s a name they’ve now tarnished. History won’t judge this “edition” kindly.

  18. @Grackle Thanks for your input. I’d love to know exactly what it is about this edition of D&D which doesn’t make it D&D for you. I’m genuinely interested in your point of view and where it comes from.

  19. @Grackle: My cousin says 4th Edition is a very different game than the one that came out ten years ago. So, Grackle, you’re thinking they should have called it something else?
    .-= EltonJ´s last blog ..SpaceMaster =-.

  20. I have to pipe in with the opposite of the tried it and liked it experience. My group of 6 sold all their books, bought a years worth of 4e products and ran an entire 1-22nd level campaign… After that we have to say it really ruined d&d for us.

    As DM I found the system easy to run badly, or easy to run as a tabletop minis game, but very hard to run as a story based roleplaying game. I found the system was too balanced, and that the rules were too straight jacketed. For example, so many (all?) powers boiled down to their damage. We went from a system (3e) where you would have to read text and decipher just what the spell did, to a system where you could skip everythin and just say what the damage and range were. I look at a spell like Mirror Image in 3e, and compare it to its counterpart in 4e as an example. Gone is the idea of what you are actually doing, just in the way it is written. It was hard as a DM for me to get my players to get out of the tactical roleplaying box that 4e puts them in.

    Couple that with the fact that everyone progresses the same, battles take waaaay to long, and it just doesn’t feel like D&D to me. And thats too bad, cause I was really hopefull about this system.

    We are now playing pathfinder. I think 4e taught us a lot. Not every battle needs a grid, we do some verbally now. You don’t always need rules, I find my authority is much more respected after the 4e balance/rulesfest debacle. 4e’s openess, simplicity and balance encouraged my players to question every rule, to make sure it was done properly, this detracted from the experience.

    The power cards sum it all up for me, make something to streamlined, too balanced, and it doesn’t feel right anymore. I mean really, what was the problem with the melees specializing in at wills and the casters specializing in dailies? This concept has ALWAYS been a hallmark of D&D and it was thrown out for balance.

  21. And yet when D&D 3rd Edition came out, people on the Internet loves it. Check out the Amazon reviews of the Player’s Handbook from 2000:

    And compare that to the reviews of the 4th edition counterpart:

    See the difference? 4.5 stars average for 3rd Edition (with most all reviews giving it 5 stars) as opposed to 3 stars for 4th edition (with almost all reviews giving it 1 star), with less reviews (some people didn’t even bother I guess).

    1. True. I’ll confess I was one of 4e’s vocal detractors when it first came out. I hated the layout of the PHB (and still wish was designed better – the Essentials line proves it could be done). Yet 4e has grown on me. From my initial dislike I’ve come to love the system. It would be interesting to hear from those early Amazon reviewers of 4e and see (those who stuck with it) what they think of it now.

      In contrast, Third Edition came out of barren wilderness. We’d had the death of TSR then the takeover. There had been no official (A)D&D products for years. I suspect that WoTC could have released FATAL, stuck the D&D name on it and we’d have called it good. We were that desperate.

      Thankfully though, what we got was very good indeed, and it turned around the fortunes of D&D and (thanks to the OGL) the entire industry. WoTC also managed the launch exceptionally well with teaser information and class previews published in Dragon magazine (in print, on paper no less) and eliciting feedback and playtest information from we gamers.

      When it came to the 4e announcement and launch, WoTC screwed it up badly. It was designed behind closed doors, presented in a “this is great because we say it is” manner, they pulled Dragon and Dungeon off the shelves and kicked the OGL in the balls, all in the space of a few months.

      It’s surprising that Fourth Edition even survived its troubled birth, looking back. Shame on you, WoTC for screwing up so badly. I’m pretty sure they’ve paid the price now though, in spades.

      All of which has nothing to do with how good 4e is as a system, but it does go some way to explaining the dearth of negative reviews it received.

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