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. There are still many who bemoan the loss of the Warload, which was an extremely interesting and versitile martial class. D&D 5e still has nothing like it.

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. Compared to 3.x, combat effects from powers/maneuvers were significantly 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.

5 comments:

  1. Google+ comments:
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    Dec 17, 2014
    Gordon Vincent

    I didn't play 4e. I did read the promotional material WOTC put out, quite carefully. It went to great lengths to emphasize that the things I enjoyed in 3.x would be removed, and things I didn't enjoy would be injected. I took WOTC at their word, assumed that people who write words for a living meant what they said, and decided not to purchase something that the sellers went to much effort to make clear I would not enjoy.
    I downloaded the "free intros" to 5/next/splunge/whatever, but have never gotten around to reading them.


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    Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)
    +Gordon Vincent That's a perfectly understandable decision and it's your right to spend your money where it gives you entertainment value.

    My issue is really more with people who didn't try 4e but then criticize it in forums and blogs to no end despite not having actually played it at all (or more than one or two sessions).

    It's like a movie reviewer writing a critique on the first 10 minutes and never watching the rest of the film.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Greg Gillespie

    I dont see things lining up for 5th like you do, just mho.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    James Kilbride

    Having run games from 2nd through 4th edition extensively I can tell you that you hit things on the head with this. I've run a campaign now for 6 years in 4th edition and while it has it's issues, the A/E/D mechanic fundamentally changed the game from 'tweaking my character' to 'playing my character' since everybody had options in every combat. My PC's also spend more of their time role playing than fighting(or roleplaying in the fighting) and I've used half a dozen skill challenge mechanics to shake things up and make them different. The DM makes the difference as do the players. Every game system out there has it's issues. So well written and good defense of 4th. (I have loved characters in every edition from 2nd to 4th and I look forward to some fun in 5th).

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Greg Gillespie

    To each there own, but I'm interested in playing Gygax's D&D. WotC versions have evolved into a game the doesnt interest me much. Not trying to start anything whatsoever...and to each their own.

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  2. Dec 18, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Greg Gillespie Just out of curiosity, are you playing White Box or 1e or 2e?

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Greg Gillespie

    Hi, I play B/X or Moldvay Basic as restated by the Labyrinth Lord retroclone rules. Basically it's TSR D&D .75. Not basic but not Ad&d either.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Greg Gillespie

    There's a sweet spot there that best represents how we played back in the day. A little of everything, but not too much of anything. No rules mastery or lawyering. Rulings over rules.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Greg Gillespie Have your read through the 5e Basic PDF?

    Without trying to sound too much like an evangelist, I think it is winning over many OSR proponents because its design philosophy is a lot more in line with OSR design goals.

    Don't dismiss it before giving it a try. "Don't cost nuthin'!" as they say...

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Conor Rochon (RoyRockOn)

    As one of the new guys who was brought to the table by fourth edition, I thank you. This is a nice defense of my first, if no longer favorite, RPG. The edition wars always confused me. So many games out there that don't start with D. Surely you can find something to your taste.
    There are a lot of new gamers thanks to 4e and I see a lot of its DNA in 5e. Thanks for defending my nostalgia.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Greg Gillespie

    Yes I have. The proliferation of powers and hit point bloat are too fundamental to the style of game I enjoy. Also, I don't like fast-playing low levels. I think levels should be earned. For these reasons (and others) I can see people taking a spin, but everybody already has their go-to game.

    In addition, it isn't just about the game. It is also about he company that gets my financial support. WotC won't see a dime from me. I just don't like how they do business. I'd rather support projects from within the OSR made with passion and love of the subject matter.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Tim Bannock

    My hope is that 4e continues to influence Wizards' boardgame design and they continue to make engaging, tactical boardgames or skirmish-scale mini games, but perhaps taking a little of the modularity of 5e as a further development angle.

    4e's a great game, but 5e's a better D&D game, IMHO. A simpler 4e (meaning, less moving parts to track and slightly faster combat rounds) would be a fantastic D&D Tactics game.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Stephen Brandon

    I liked 4e, though I also have a lot of issues with it too. But! I actually think the 4e based version of Gamma World they put out was a really good use of the system. They simplified things in a lot of smart ways and that game is just soooo fun. I'd love to see them keep using the 4e engine to occasionally build other games. (And as mentioned by +Tim Bannock above it's a great fit for tactical and board games).

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Kyle Maxwell

    FWIW, the new DMG does in fact have an optional spell point system on page 288.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Stephen Brandon I've not gotten the opportunity to play the new Gamma World iteration, but I'm very anxious to try it. I was a little put off by the collectible card boosters they attempted to tack on to the system. Felt like a cheezy money grab, but I am still wanting to play it.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Kyle Maxwell Good to know! I just got my copy yesterday so I had not had time to dig in yet.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Stephen Brandon

    I agree that was a foolish move on their part, but the game is a ton of fun.

    I also liked that the box for the base game was a bit oversized. was even able to cram a complete set of the cards, both expansions and a bag of dice into the box the base game came with, so any time anyone wants to play some GW I have the whole game right there, ready to go!

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Stephen Brandon So when are you coming over? ;)

    Heck, if you're still living near Williamsburg, you're just up the road a bit.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Stephen Brandon
    Sadly I'm a bit further up the road these days. Anyway if you get the chance it's a really fun, slightly silly game. I really like the way the game leaves a lot of things intentionally not filled in or vague, forcing everyone to get really creative right from the start. (I actually wrote a blog post about it a while back! http://duke.brandonshire.org/2012/11/gamma-world-and-group-creativity.html)

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    Dec 17, 2014
    The Son of Suns

    Such a kickass picture!

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Tim Bannock

    +Stephen Brandon Does it play exceptionally faster than 4e D&D? I'm really on the fence about GW...I wanna try it out, but only if it's truly slicker than 4e.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Kyle Maxwell

    I'm enjoying 5e and it pulled me back into tabletop RPGs after a few years away, but it's still a bit too rules-heavy for me. Whitebox or B/X style OSR games seem much more my speed.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Daniel Stewart

    2e was the best until 5e? You need to add a massive asterisk to that statement, my friend. Consider your rule 0 mention and cover 2e with many layers of just that statement.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Stephen Brandon

    +Tim Bannock I haven't played as much of it as I'd like, but I found it to be a fair bit faster.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    John “The Gneech” Robey

    Yes, 4E's problems were largely with presentation, but there were plenty of others in adventure design and general game philosophy. I always found it ironic that 4E presented a very robust system for ruling-on-the-fly for improvised moves and unexpected challenges... which then never got used because the players just said, "I guess I'll use my at-will powers 'cos the dailies and encounters are all used up."

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  4. Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Daniel Stewart I said it was my favorite. I didn't technically say best. Those are two very different statements. I know 2e had its own rule issues, but it was still the system in which I had the most fun as a player.

    As a DM, 4e was really fun for me. Encounter design was quite enjoyable (Prep time was fun. Imagine that!) and simple using the 4e monster rules. It was extraordinarily easy to re-skin monsters as something different, but with similar powers/traits.

    As a DM, 3.x/Pathfinder was not as easy to run as 2e and not as fun to run as 4e even though the rules were pretty solid during that edition.

    I enjoyed 3.x and Pathfinder as a player, but the emphasis on character min-maxing and feat tree optimization largely ruined both of them for me in the long run.

    I was playing a very different game than many of the other PF peeps at the table and it made it way less fun for me. I don't think I'll go back to that rule set anytime soon as much as I like Paizo's adventure content.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +John Robey writes "I always found it ironic that 4E presented a very robust system for ruling-on-the-fly for improvised moves and unexpected challenges... which then never got used..."

    You so hit the nail on the head. Utterly. Completely.

    What Wizards needed was a section at the beginning of the DMG or PHB power that said "These powers aren't written in stone. If you have a cool or interesting way you want to improvise the use of a power, suggest it to the DM. As a DM, be open to the suggestions of your players and improvise." Or something to that effect. It was a failure of presentation even though the potential was built into the system.

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    Dec 17, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +John Robey Re: Adverture design/philosophy: I generally agree but at the same time two of my favorite all time modules are from 4e -- Reavers of Harkenwold and Slaying Stone. Both were excellent presentations of a more sandbox-like adventure module. No pre-written adventure can be truly sandbox, because of the nature of pre-written adventure plots... but these two module are both tremendous examples of how multiple paths can be presented to the players and the outcome can differ based on how the players react and what choices are made... So while the design philosophy leaned toward a "delve" style game, two of their early heroic tier adventures utterly broke that mold.

    Some day I may try to adapt them for 5e if I get behind the screen again.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    John “The Gneech” Robey

    +Marty Walser I've never heard of Reavers, was that an organized play adventure?

    There was certainly some good stuff for 4E... Thunderspire Labyrinth is a very neat setting for instance, but even that is a railroad full of explodey randomness. In general it did seem to get better as it got away from the "delve" format, and I quite like the Eberron and Neverwinter campaign books.

    What I always said about 4E was I loved everything in the DMG, hated everything in the PHB, and the adventures were a complete crapshoot.

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  5. Dec 18, 2014
    Eldecrynn LeCorbeau

    Reavers of Harlenwold was part of the Essentials, and came with the Dungeon Master's Kit. I never got to run it, but it looked quite good.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +John Robey Reavers was in the DM Kit (part of the Essentials line). It seems like 4e really started to get its s#!t together by the time Essentials came out, but it was really too late by then. I wasn't crazy about trade paperbacks, but the Essentials line was much better written and organized than the earlier books (but there were also some compatibility issues between Essentials and core). The DM Kit, Rules Compendium and Monster Vaults were really some of the best 4e content ever produced (although the first Monster Vault adventure was pretty lame).

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Stephen Brandon

    I honestly believe if Essentials, and everything that came after it had been the launch of 4e (which obviously wouldn't be possible since it was basically a distillation of lessons learned in the first several years of 4e's life) that edition would probably still be going. The last bunch of products for 4e were all really really good.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Samuel Dillon

    I agree with +Stephen Brandon - the last year and a half of 4e's production cycle produced some of the best products in the line, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, the Shadowfell boxed set, and even the Heroes of the Feywild (which had content I wasn't thrilled about, but the ideas and presentation/organization of the book was fantastic)... if they had produced those books early in the 4e life-cycle, it would have been perceived very differently.

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    Dec 18, 2014
    Stephen Brandon

    Yeah, Madness at Gardmore Abbey is really well done. Might be the high point of 4e adventures for me.

    ReplyDelete

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