What 4e does right, part one

The next Edition of D&D has been announced and the designers have said that they will be looking at every prior Edition to learn from them and aim to make this Edition the best, most inclusive edition of D&D to date.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at each edition starting with Fourth Edition and working back to see if we can bring out of the positive in each. To my mind, every single edition (regardless of publisher, designer or age) can be summed up with the same single line review: Brilliant, but flawed.

That’s as true with Fourth Edition as it is with Third Edition, AD&D, Classic D&D and all the minor variants thereof. Every edition of D&D has moments of genius, and alongside that are the things which it does less well. Each and every one of them is  brilliant, but flawed. In some ways, these flaws are an important part of the D&D Experience – they encourage house-rules, GM calls and general rules tweakery that are all part-and-parcel of playing D&D. And of course, one gamer’s flaw is another gamer’s killer feature that differentiates their edition of D&D from all the rest.

For the purpose of these posts, I’m going to focus on the positive and see if it’s possible to take these elements and somehow blend them together to make – if not a perfect edition of D&D, then at least one which aspires to be.

On with the show.


Fun fact: you can tell the age of a gamer by how he orders his stats. Fourth Edition switched a couple around from the way Third Edition did it, giving us the sequence STR CON DEX INT WIS CHA. The highest stat bonus in each pair (STR & CON, DEX & INT and WIS & CHA) modified the PC’s Fortitude, Reflex and Will saves.

That’s just genius. It’s elegant, smart and easy to explain. A clever Wizard knows to get out of the way whereas at high-DEX Rogue relies on his natural agility, and you can stop magic through sheer force of personality and great looks. I love that.

I pray that Fifth Edition keeps the 3-18 range for stats, and keeps the Fourth Edition order for them.

Hit Points

4e introduced the idea of bad things happening when you were down to half your Hit Point value (Bloodied), and Healing Surges that represented your body’s ability to recover. Both of those are great ideas, but where 4e didn’t do so well with Hit Points is that there are too damned many of them. Heroes and even moderate level monsters have far too many Hit Points, and that (tests show) is the Number One cause of Slow Combat Syndrome.

Oddly enough, this is a problem caused not by the hit point mechanics themselves (which are pretty smart) but with a flawed core design decision in the game itself: that of avoiding imposing penalties where possible. This means that rather than imposing a -4 penalty for using a non-proficient weapon, Fourth Edition gives a bonus for using a weapon you’re proficient in. Thanks to that boost, hero is more likely to hit in combat meaning the monster has to have more hit points to compensate.

Net result: too many damned hit points, and long combat.

So, use the Fourth Edition Hit Point mechanic, but bring back Third Edition style penalties. It’s a win all round.

Power sources and abilities

Fourth Edition codified something already existing and alluded to in previous editions of D&D: Power comes from many sources. 4e gave us the Arcane, Divine and Martial Power sources followed by Primal, Psionic, Shadow, etc in later books.Conceptually, it’s great but the terminology went (let’s be frank) a little bit up its own ass.

What the next Edition needs to do is build on that, but remove the word “Power” entirely from its vocabulary. Just call them “Sources”, and call the abilities…. “Abilities”. Fighters have Martial Abilities, Wizards have Arcane Abilities (we call ’em “spells”) and Shadow Dancers know disco.

Rather than limiting the Abilities to At-will, per Encounter or Daily, key them to Triggers which say when (or if) an Ability can be used. A Trigger might well be “At-Will” or “Daily”, but it might also be “when an enemy hits you”, “when bloodied”, “once before the next full moon” or even “when down to 0 hit points and about to be eaten”.

Oh, and no per Encounter Abilities. Triggers should affect usage frequency, not some meta-game condition. As with D&D Essentials, make the Abilities match the class first and foremost rather than striving for symmetry in all things. If a Class would work best with only At-Will abilities, that’s how you make it.

As it stands, Fourth Edition is great at what it does. If Fifth Edition wants to do better though, it needs to take what 4e has given, and enhance it.

The Three Tiers

4e hearkens back to Classic D&D’s Basic/Expert/Companion & Master “tiers” of play with its Heroic/Paragon and Epic tiers, and I see no reason to change that.

What I would like to see it them expand on it by adding new elements to the game. Give me Strongholds in the Paragon Tier, and control of whole Empires at Epic!

Easy Encounter Building

There’s nothing easier than adding a bunch of XP. Fourth Edition makes creating Encounters dead simple, and generally speaking the difficulty works out about right every time.

I hope they keep it as simple as this, and don’t go back to Third Edition’s nasty Challenge Rating system. They wouldn’t…… would they?

That’s enough for now. Part Two to follow.


19 Comments on “What 4e does right, part one”

  1. I’m EXCITED!!!


    Happy days are here again, here again, here again. Happy days are here again! :)

    No, I didn’t mean you personally.

      1. Good, because if they pull this off, it will be the best edition ever. IT will be tough, but I think they will succeed in some way. Some of us want to tell stories — as good as Shakespeare did — with D&D. While others wants powers to go — you know.

        Modular is good for D&D because there are too many GMs and groups with varying play styles. I wholeheartedly went to pathfinder because the 4Eers thought I was a threat. I just wanted to push the game into a direction I wanted it to go.

        However, it’s impossible. I’ll never be able to play 4e until I get a liberal DM who is willing to work with me. I want to play someone who could be real, dude. Until I find that DM who is willing to work with me, 4e is fake and completely artificial to me. Bar none.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you put in, but I’m really surprised that you said that you hope attributes stay in the 3-18 range. Why is that? Are you hoping that the default method of allocating attributes will return to being 3d6, rather than point buy? Or is this a nostalgic sacred cow?

    1. If the next edition is to appeal to the D&D gamers that 4e lost (for whatever reason) the last thing it needs to do is slay any more sacred cows.

      Much as I like the way Mutants & Masterminds, for example, has moved away from the traditional 3-18, I do think it needs to be a part of D&D itself with stats rolled on 4d6 (drop lowest), an array or point buy option. Or 3d6 if you’re hardcore.

      While I’d personally also like them to return to stat values where having an 18 somewhere is a rare and special thing, I don’t think we’ll be seeing that any time soon :)

  3. There are a lot of solid ideas in 4E. Some were a little unpolished and issues did come up. But by far this was the most approachable and balanced edition. Things just clicked. I hope they don’t stray too far away from it.

      1. I agree. While 4e suited some game groups (mine included) it alienated many others. A large part of that, I think, had to do with presentation rather than the rules themselves. Putting the majority of the rules, tables and infoblocks in the Players Handbook at the expense of good imaginitive role-playing fluff was a mistake, with hindsight.

        The Essentials line did a pretty good job of rectifying that, but the damage had already been done. First impressions count for a lot.

  4. A few additional areas to discuss.

    It might not hurt to talk about what Pathfinder has done right and wrong as well when discussing 3E. Through the APG, Ultimate Magic and Combat, Paizo has introduced several new design elements that were not present in 3E.

    On that note, it may not be a bad thing to discuss Monte Cook’s and Mike Mearls work on the Arcana Unearthed line as their work was different enough from base d20.

    While you are at it, Alternity may be a good sidenote in the 2E discussion as several design elements made their way into 3E.

    1. I’ll definitely be including Pathfinder in the list as a part of the 3e post. I’m not familiar with many of the supplements for it though, so if anyone else wants to contribute a post I’ll happily link back to them…….

  5. So, first up, I think your comments are nice and balanced and I pretty much agree. In concept I like pow… er, Abilities, but in play I found the rinse & repeat concept annoying. Yet, when compared to a AD&D Fighter who just constantly swings his sword, I cannot understand why I feel this way. I guess it has something to do with the constant use of At-Wills and very little reason to ever use Basic Attack.

    And a question. What did you think of the “it is morning and you are completely healed” concept of Hit Points? I have trouble resolving that in my mind without fluffing it all to hell.

    1. This is how I think of it:

      In Fourth Edition, hit points weren’t Hit Points in the same way they were in previous editions of D&D. They were more like a cross between adrenalin and your hero’s will to carry on. When they’re depleted the PC is exhausted, lost of the will to fight – out for the count but nothings a good night’s sleep won’t cure.

      Healing Surges are the real Hit Points in 4e D&D. When they’re gone, the PC is in real trouble. Using a Healing Surge is the player saying “that hit which knocked me for six from that big orc – that really hurt!”..

      I quite like that as it more closely represents how adrenalin works. It’s only after the combat is over (or when you use Second Wind) do you take stock and realize you’ve been fighting with a broken arm for the past few minutes.

      Thinking in those terms and Healing Surges make sense, even though they’re badly named. They aren’t “healing” at all, but the one thing that you really don’t want to run out of.

      Going back to your question (at last), this does mean that it’s a good thing that Hit Points (call ’em Adrenal Points, or whatever) refresh after an Extended Rest, but I would like to see a slower recharge for Surges.

      I think in the next edition we’ll see all of this go, and return to a far simpler hit point mechanic.

      1. Yeah, that IS the usual metaphor for HPs in 4E but it never really accounts for the fact that no one ever gets an injury that actually takes time to heal. Taking longer to get back those surges is a neat idea.

        I honestly think that this is where 4E got so wrapped up in balanced-and-fun mechanics it abandoned some common sense.

      2. I like the idea of it being an adrenaline model, rather than a hit point model. Looking from the classic hit point angle, I never could get friendly with this squandering of hit points!
        Furthermore, following your suggestion to restrict “healing” surges, I would suggest a mechanic that will account for long-term injuries like broken arms in that they will cut down your healing surges by one for every major injury. Broken limb, fractured rib, two surges less. It’s almost elegant in that way (I still prefer the way Strands of FATE handles this). Thanks for helping me get a LITTLE better approach to 4e!

        1. Maybe this will help somebody, I don’t know. Back in the 80s when I was a kid, we had a hard time reconciling hit points and injuries, too. We came up with a system that was similar to the adrenaline analogy that we called vitality points. Loss of vitality points represented your character being beaten down and tired (taking hits on the shield or armor, getting bruises, making parries, moving around, but no actual wounds). At half hit points you were Winded and suffered a minor penalty to hit. At one quarter VP you were Tired and might have some small wounds like cuts, and you took a bigger to-hit penalty. Below 0 you were Wounded and had taken an actual stab wound or blow to the head or something and were immobile. Now you were taking Hit Point damage, but I can’t remember what we made that number…10? Equal to your Con + your level? Or it may have been based on hit dice….

          We didn’t like the idea of time healing this (would take too long) and preferred magic for healing. So a cleric could heal you, or a non-healer could come to your aid and stabilise you (we figured a Wounded person would be bleeding out every round and would lose one or two HP based on a 50% roll by the player…to add to the danger and fear, of course).

          We hated the idea of leaving the dungeon or just sleeping overnight to completely heal up. But how does a fitful night of sleep in a cold dungeon completely heal a stab wound?? Didn’t like that at all. So after the encounter we figured you could use healing potions, but we banned their use during combat since we thought it would remove the sense of danger. But later, the Cleric had become sick of always healing, so we allowed them in combat (I seem to recall that you couldn’t quaff multiple potions at once but can’t remember how we prevented that….it was something like you could only take one and had to wait 2 or 3 rounds because taking more would be toxic or damage you or something). We didn’t have a mechanic for “being unconscious” though, so we always allowed potions if you were Wounded. This lead to the idea of a more advanced healing potion mechanic that required three things: the potion, a magical chant (by either a cleric or even a wizard), and rest (either a Short Rest which was about half an hour to an hour, or a Full Rest which was overnight). Each part was equal to 1/3 of your VP. So a potion in combat gave you 1/3 because you weren’t getting the magical chant or rest. After an encounter you had the potion, chant, but only a Short Rest, so we would give you full VP then roll a die to remove some points from the total to represent your haggard “beaten down-ness.” But if you were resting in a dungeon or area of danger, there was a chance of monsters finding you, in which case you had to fight with half your VP back.

          I haven’t played DnD in a long time and I don’t know if this would work with 4e, but I’m just saying you can always house rule something like this. I seem to recall that the 1/3 return became too much when we reached higher levels and had higher hit dice… So this might work but would surely need play testing and fudging of numbers and more details…..

  6. ” As with D&D Essentials, make the Abilities match the class first and foremost rather than striving for symmetry in all things. If a Class would work best with only At-Will abilities, that’s how you make it.”

    Honestly this is probably the single most important thing the designers need to keep in mind. More than any other single issue this is the one I hear most, when people tell me why they don’t like 4e.

  7. I thought power sources were a great idea as well. I would really like to see 5e do something more in-game with them though instead of keeping it as simply a character defining trait. For example – characters with the shadow power source get some kind of bonus in the Shadowfell, or you could have an anti-magic zone where only martial abilities function – stuff like that.

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