Wednesday, December 17, 2014

D&D: Parting Shots in the Edition Wars

A couple years ago, Wizards of the Coast set out to glue back together the Humpty Dumpty that D&D had become due to "edition warring". In an effort to unite old school philosophy with modern game design, "D&D Next" was placed out into the public eye so the fans could lobby for the parts of the system they felt were important, while WotC showed what parts of the system it was lyposuctioning away in order to make a more lean, mean D&D.

There were many, many doubters who said it would never work... And many more, like myself, who thought it might work to some extent, but not so much that it would "reunite the family", so to speak. Interestingly enough, it appears Wizards of the Coast was pretty successful executing their goals.

Old schoolers are coming back. Pathfinders are coming back. Even 4e proponents have found things to like in this new edition. While we don't have sales numbers to go by, the buzz on social media has been that D&D is back, bigger and better than ever and firing on all cylinders. [As you might have noticed, I like my metaphors all mixed up into one giant gumbo.]

But that's not really what this post is about.

This post is about D&D 4th Edition.

Because, even today, now that the war is "over", bloggers and forum posters are *still* taking pot shots and poor, old 4th Edition when discussing 5th Edition... And like the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans, I'm going to defend the poor girl one last time (even though the war is already over).

I'm actually not a huge 4e fan boy. AD&D 2nd Edition was my favorite up until the release of 5e, but I believe that many of the issues with multiple editions of D&D get unfairly laid at the feet of 4th Edition. I also believe that 4th Edition introduced many design ideas that make 5th Edition even better.

Complaint 1: At-Will / Encounter / Daily powers video-gamified the combat mechanics [and therefore broke verisimilitude].

Guess what? Fifth edition still has these. Is that an At-Will power? Nope, it's a "cantrip" spell. Druid gets Wild Shape back after a short rest?  That's an Encounter power. Barbarian rages recharge after a long rest? Daily power. Class features that "recharge" after a short or long rest are just re-skinned Powers. Spell slots? Dailies.

They're the same thing with a slightly different presentation. Want a hamburger with Thousand Island salad dressing on it?  Ewww... Yuck! OK, then how about a Big Mac with "special sauce"?  Yum.

Sometimes you might even see a blogger denigrate A/E/D powers in one post and then talk about how cool the Fighter's Battle Master "maneuvers" are in another post. <eye roll>

It's the same thing. The only difference is that 5e parses the presentation language in such a way that these class features feel unique to the class to which they belong. If anything, 4e's A/E/D powers only failed in that the effects were presented in a way that made them seem too similar from one class to another. I think that's a fair critique, but there were differences when you looked beyond the core mechanic of how powers worked. I actually think 5th Edition could have preserved even more of the cool class powers from 4th Edition than they did, because the Battle Master is, at minimum, a more interesting version of the Fighter. It's too bad they didn't expand more maneuvers (i.e. - powers) for other classes in 5e.

Complaint 2: "I can only do what the powers on my character sheet say I can."

This is not a problem of game mechanics. It may be a failure in presentation, but those of us who have been in the game a while know that Rule 0 is more important than any rule in the book. If you play in a game where the DM doesn't let your fighter swing on the chandelier into battle because you don't have the "Swashbuckling Light Fixture" power, then you have a terrible DM, not a bad game system. If your players don't realize they can't swing from the lights, as a DM, you need to do a better job at letting them know that anything goes, and you will rule on the effect as best you can.

Regardless of what edition you play, don't get hung up on the rules as written. Tell the DM what action you'd like to take and ask if you can use the special effects of power X even though it doesn't exactly read that way... 9 times out of 10, I will tell you "yes" because fun in the game is more important than the rules as written.

The only failure here might be that 4th Edition books did not try to teach DMs and players to improvise more using their existing powers... But for those of you who have been playing D&D for years and complained that 4e constrained your creativity because you couldn't do X, Y or Z, shame on you. You should know better. D&D has always been about improvisation on both sides of the screen.

Complaint 3: Combat takes too long.

While I agree with this critique, this was also true of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder. This is not an issue isolated to 4e, but was really a product of the changes that were inherited from 3.x. Luckily, fifth edition streamlined combat much in the way it was handled prior to 3rd edition. What 4th Edition tried to do was give every class cool options in combat. The execution of that design goal may have had its issues, but I don't fault Wizards of the Coast for trying to make melee combatants more interesting.

Complaint 4: It's a board game.

This is related to complaint #3. Because 4th Edition has a different tactical feel some prior versions, people would denigrate it's grid-based play. However, people started complaining about grid-based play since 3.0 emphasized miniatures play and 3.5 continued, if not added to, that emphasis. PCs in both 3.x and Pathfinder games move around like chess pieces and they try to maneuver for combat advantage and avoid opportunity attacks.

As with complaint #3, this is not a problem specific to 4th Edition, but was created by it's predecessors. Anyone who complains that 4e is a board game or video game in one breath and then goes to espouse the awesomeness of Pathfinder in the next breath is full of crap. I'm surprised their brain does not explode due to the amount of cognitive dissonance.

Complaint 4: No Vancian magic.

This complaint always makes me a little crazy. People hated Vancian magic for years upon years. When Wizards of the Coast announced at Gen Con (prior to the 4e release) that Vancian magic was gone from 4e, the whole crowd went wild with cheers. There's a clip of that announcement somewhere on YouTube, but I'm having a hard time finding it (if anyone can track it down, let me know).

Interestingly enough, 5e uses "spell slots" which on the surface looks a bit like Vancian, but play a bit more like a spell point system because you can overspend on a spell to make it more powerful. I definitely like this idea, but it would have been even nicer if 5e had come out with a different (perhaps optional) mana-point style magic system. Sorcery points are interesting in that they make the spell slot system even more flexible (i.e. - trade up a 1st and 2nd level slot for a 3rd level slot and vice versa), but I was really hoping for something more unique along the lines of Dragonlance 5th Age, which has the best, most amazing improvisational magic system EVER... but I digress.

The key point is that fans asked to be rid of Vancian magic, but when their sacred cow was finally slaughtered, people freaked out,

Complaint 5: 4th Edition emphasizes roll-play, not role-play.

This complaint has been leveled against every version of D&D since 2nd Edition introduced non-weapon proficiencies. Anytime you have a a skill system that includes personality skills (Bluff, Diplomacy, Sense Motive, etc), you are going to run into the issue of player skill vs. character skill and how to resolve situations that should ideally be role-played at the table. This is not new to the game. The player skill vs. character skill debate has existed for ages.

The nature of 4e skill challenges did make it a bit worse because DM's did not really understand how to enable the players to use role-playing as a part of skill challenges. I will concede that the presentation of skill challenges was poor. I actually think skill challenges handled correctly can actually enhance role-playing, but 4e failed to give good examples of how to run them properly.

However, a second part of this complaint is that just because 4e has a heavy emphasis on combat rules, that takes away from role-playing. Every edition of D&D has had this same complaint and it's just a bogus today as it was in 1989. D&D has always emphasized combat in the rules system. Pages discussing role playing have always been a small percentage of the page count in every edition. To claim 4th Edition has less emphasis on role-playing than other editions is just plain false.

Features in 5th Edition


D&D 4th Edition actually gave us a number of rules mechanics that really enhance 5th Edition.

Class Features - As I noted earlier, some of the powers in 4e were re-skinned as 5th edition class features. Features such as Battle Master maneuvers are directly lifted from 4e powers. A cleric's Channel Divinity powers in 5e work very much like they did in 4e. There are several other examples when you look for them.

Background Traits - Late in the development cycle, 4e added background traits to character generation that would give small mechanical bonuses to skill checks or possibly Reflex/Fortitude/Will defenses. These traits blossomed into the more fully fleshed backgrounds in 5th edition.

At-Will Spells - While earlier editions did have "cantrips", there really was very little offensive capability for spell casters that could be used continuously. Fourth edition's At-Will powers were added as spells in 5th edition to give casters more combat flexibility at low levels. As with 4th edition, these spells also get more powerful as the caster levels up, keeping them relevant even at high levels. This mechanic comes directly from 4e.

Advantage - While the mechanic changed slightly, Advantage is a descendant of the d20 re-roll mechanics that appeared in several 4e powers. Along those same lines, mechanics like Halfling Luck and Bardic Inspiration also descend from 4e counterparts.

Monster Traits - 4th Edition added traits and powers to monsters just like they did to PCs. Different monsters even of the same type often had small special abilities that made them unique. Even a group of Kobolds might have several different special moves or actions. As a DM, this could be a bit of a pain to track, but could be exceptionally fun to play. Fifth edition kept the spirit of monster traits and powers in 5e.

Fluff in our Monster Manuals - Recent trends in monster books moved in the direction of more stats and less text. This was a big mistake, in my opinion. The rich descriptions of the monsters, their ecology, lairs and culture were what made previous monster manuals shine. A number of 3rd edition and 4th edition books left this extra detail out until the 4e Essentials line fixed that trend. The Monster Vault and Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale are two of the best monster collections ever produced. They not only gave us really nicely formatted stat blocks, but also gave a wealth of fluff and even plot hooks within the Nentir Vale supplement. Much of the style that was developed in those books continues into the 5e Monster Manual.

Final Thoughts


While D&D 4th Edition was never the pinnacle iteration, I think it's far from the worst and deserves more credit than it gets. Under the auspices of 4th Edition, attendance at Gen Con continued to grow to record levels and programs like D&D Encounters brought many, many new gamers into the hobby.

As far as rules sets, it may not cater to the tastes of many, but it was not the worst. AD&D was a hot mess. Even though I grew up on the original Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide, the rules are poorly organized, contradictory, and unclear even in the best of circumstances.

AD&D 2nd Edition (a favorite of mine up til now) much improved issues that were present in AD&D, but still had its own issues, challenges and quirky rules.

Third edition cleaned up the rule set quite a bit by moving toward a single core mechanic, but emphasized grid play and also introduced stacking bonuses/penalties that slowed combat dramatically.

Every edition has had its share of crap as well as awesome... and all told, even though D&D 4th Edition diverged in unexpected ways from earlier editions, as a rule set, it's not actually that bad. With a few tweaks, even problems like slow combat could be overcome.

Ideally, now that 5th Edition has gone back to a model of simplicity in the rules and re-emphasized exploration and role playing, we can put the edition wars to rest... and get back to arguing about some other really unimportant rules minutia.

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