4th Edition: Natural 20 or Critical Failure?

July 20, 2008 at 1:57 am 3 comments

When the words “Dungeons and Dragons” are said, people react in a few ways. Some might roll their eyes and snort derisively through the nose (a maneuver that makes them look and sound a little like a pit bull, usually). Others quirk an eyebrow and question the speaker; perhaps they’re interested, but perhaps they’re only curious because of the opportunity to demean the sad and lonely nerds. A few that I’ve met have warned that only Satan lies down that path (I sold my soul for a natural 20).

Me? I get excited. Dungeons & Dragons has been a part of my social repertoire since I was in high school. My first experience was with 2nd edition AD&D, a horrid age of unnecessarily complex rules, presided over by the dark and tyrannical THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0). That didn’t last so long. In high school, a friend convinced me to give it another shot, during the 3.5th edition era, a time when negative modifiers were no longer good (ever), and feats were as important a part of character creation as classes and skills.

Having bought, to date, over $400 worth of 3rd and 3.5th edition, I was understandably bitter when 4th edition was announced, though optimistic that particularly annoying rules might be changed (I hated grappling, it never made sense). A part of me yearned for a system that was more balanced and player-friendly, while my wallet vehemently rejected the idea. As details leaked out, I grew excited by the changes; maybe this would be fun after all.

As it turns out, it is.

Pros: The game has been simplified. A lot. Rather than fighters getting bonus feats, wizards getting spells, and rogues getting “special features,” everyone now gets powers. All of the powers are very simple to read and understand, and since everything is largely the same, new gamers won’t feel overwhelmed by a barrage of choices.

The basic game mechanic of roll a d20, add a number, and compare it to a Difficulty Class (DC) hasn’t changed, but the numbers you add have. No more are you bothered by base attack bonuses, skill ranks, and base saves complicating your class: almost everything is simply a d20 plus one-half your level plus an ability modifier. Saves have been done away with altogether, replacing them with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses, an AC-like score which enemy casters try to beat with an attack roll. This allows casters to critical with anything, not just “weaponlike” spells anymore.

The addition of at-will powers means that no one, not even the spell-slinging wizard, is at a loss for action in combat. It also adds more variety; now, rather than simply having a fighter swing a sword around mindlessly, he can make a basic attack or use one of his at-will powers with a variety of interesting (though not game-breaking) effects.

Death effects have been entirely removed, meaning that an unlucky roll will never lead to your character’s untimely demise. Likewise, critical hits have been made less lethal; no longer does a natural 20 multiply damage, now it just maximizes the damage dice you would have otherwise rolled. Still very cool when some powers let you do three times weapon damage. Also, confirmation rolls have been removed, because what’s more disappointing than rolling a natural 20, only to fail the confirmation roll?

Separation of power levels into ten-level “tiers” (heroic, paragon, and epic) makes the game simply for the DM and player alike. Feats are likewise separated, with heroic, paragon, and epic tier feats becoming available at the appropriate level, thus doing away with the complicated base attack bonus prerequisites of 3.5th edition.

The book layouts have been improved, significantly. Every topic has a simple bullet-list style of presentation, and has been worded such that it’s very easy to understand. A single chart covers all classes’ progression through the levels, and each class has a very standardized layout that’s simple for new players to digest. Terminology has also been standardized; “shift” always means movement that doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks, “push” always means moving an enemy directly away from you, etc.

The game has been, overall, been made more accessible to those without any sort of roleplaying experience whatsoever. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) even has really good advice for new DMs… mostly. Monster encounters have been made easier to set up, experience has been simplified, and play has been streamlined. Even character creation is a little easier. As much as I personally dislike the official inclusion of character “roles” in the system, it does make it easier for new players to figure out their character’s job.

But not everything is chocolate body frosting and edible underwear. Every silver lining has its cloud, so let’s look at the negatives.

Cons: Class roles have been strongly emphasized; fighters are defenders, clerics are leaders, and rogues are strikers. It’s harder to play a social rogue, or a dual-wielding, damage-dealing fighter. Actually, that second one is completely impossible by the current ruleset, where dual-wielding is impractical for anyone but rangers. Though power and feat selection still allow for a fairly versatile character, all of the powers point in one direction for each class.

The Monster Manual (MM) has skipped out on metallic dragons. Other than a short blurb about the other varieties of dragons, only chromatic dragons got any page-time. Admittedly, this isn’t that big a deal. The game assumes that players are playing a good party, and as such should only meet chromatic dragons as adversaries, but as a true dragon-lover, I find myself disappointed by the lack of play that metallic dragons have received thus far.

The game’s core rulebooks assume you’ll be playing a good or unaligned party. As such, only the good and unaligned deities received a significant amount of attention. All paladin and cleric powers deal “radiant damage” and are described as shining lights from the gods themselves. The DMG, fortunately, gives slightly more information on the evil deities and suggestions on how to make player classes more evil-themed. Still, the fact that the typical stance is goody-two-shoes is troublesome. Some of us have darker urges.

Gnomes are a monster race. Wizards of the Coast was kind enough to put a small blurb on playing gnomes, drow, and such in the back of the MM, but gnomes are no longer the bright-eyed, tiny illusionists they once were. Now they are squat, ugly, grey things with sharp teeth, twisted by the alien realm of the Feywild. Gnome bards are a thing of the past.

Come to think of it, bards are a thing of the past, as are monks, sorcerers, barbarians, and druids. At least, they’re history until more supplements come out, detailing the archetypal classes that are so far missing from our rulebooks. This is enough to be annoying, though there may be a good reason for this. We’ll have to wait for the supplements to come out before a sterner judgment can be passed.

Multiclassing has been butchered. No more can a wizard dabble in a few levels of rogue to get some sneak attack dice and a few ranks in Hide and Move Silently. Multiclassing is handled entirely through feats; if you take four separate feats to gain powers from another class, you may then select that class in place of your 11th level “paragon path” to gain even more powers from that class. It is impossible to gain a class’ features without having selected that class.

Overall, the feel of the game is different; it feels a little more like playing an MMORPG on paper, rather than MMORPGs being a bit like D&D on your computer. The increased standardization of magic items, the uniformity of level progression, the strictness of class roles, the increased focus on combat, and especially the lumping of all special abilities under the “powers” banner have the appearance of making the game easier for new players (which is true, to an extent) but also suck dry the original soul of the game. No longer is a group of adventurers quite as different from one another as they once were under 3.5th edition’s rule. Uniqueness was sacrificed for simplicity’s sake, and those of us with the intelligence and patience to learn older systems have to wonder if it’s worth it.

Overall: Though my heart weeps at some of the changes this system has seen, the switch to 4th edition has been a worthwhile one. The game is simpler, quicker-moving, easier to teach to new players, and as much (perhaps more) fun as older systems. As with any game, further releases only serve to deepen the game, hopefully returning some conspicuously missing classes to us and giving us unique perspectives on existing classes (rangers are rumored to have a third combat style on the way). As it stands, an incomplete system, it could use improvement. Hopefully, that’s on its way.

For now, a mutable four out of five stars.


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. inknform  |  July 22, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    great review! but, like most reviews, it leaves you with that “50/50” feeling and you find yourself at a stalemate.

    as with MMORPGs, they have certainly catered to the groups with ADD (and I don`t mean Advanced D&D, lol). I`ve always been a fan of the whole character creation process because it really does set players apart.

    Oh well…as you mentioned, each supplemental book that comes out can only make it better (right??).

  • 2. madbrewlabs  |  July 30, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    I think the entirely linear progression of classes (even with multiclass feats) has sucked the fun out of playing. Sure playing is more streamlined and combat is faster, but at what cost?

  • 3. Shane  |  March 28, 2011 at 9:38 am

    I have to admit that I like the 4th ed, mainly because it’s easier to get someone new into the game. Combat is faster, and as you said mages don’t get screwed because they only can cast x per day.
    But like you said, it isn’t all great, I will miss multi classing the way it used to be.
    But fortunately in the time since your review some supplements have been added to add in some of the missing classes and then some.


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