March 31, 2009

The Half-Empty Glass: What is missing in 4E D&D

The second part of the title of this post could be a statement or a question.

Hopefully we can look at it as both.

This is the first post in a series that will explore what might be missing in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons; in terms of crunch, fluff, rules, crank, and couch. I'll begin by looking at the current state of the game, from a "crunch" point of view - then in future posts I'll look back at previous editions and other current games for a comparison. I plan on looking at some of the differences in rule mechanics between editions, the so-called "fluff", and eventually the general audience of the game (which I believe has changed). Let me know if I've missed anything, or if there is something you think I should cover.

The Current State of 4E
When 4E was first released I remember tons of complaints that the game didn't provide you with enough options. That every character was a cut out copy of the same race/class combo used by any other player. In terms of "crunch" (stats/abilities), if this was ever the case it is certainly no longer. A quick survey of the current state of 4E gives us the following numbers...
  • 29 playable Races
  • 17 Skills
  • 18 Classes
  • 185 Paragon Paths
  • 36 Epic Destinies
  • 2621 Class Powers
  • 709 Feats
  • 186 Rituals
  • ...not to mention there are 2124 Creatures and 4477 usable Items currently in the game.
So there are now over 500 different combinations of character races and class alone, not to mention power and feat selections. Something for everyone, I believe - and the available variety at first glance seems to already be on par with 3E D&D. It is a veritable pallet of material for any custom home brew setting or stock bog fantasy.

In terms of crunch... what, if anything, is missing for you?


  1. Ok, I'm going to bite on this flaming hook.

    Even given all the combinations, I still feel like each one plays too similarly to every other one (though admittedly I have only played 11 combinations and only 2 at through all three tiers). Some call it balance, I call it bland.

    I feel it's a newbie game, as I could probably pick everything at random and still be 98% effective as anyone else.

    So I guess I am saying it also lacks benefits for intelligent design/choice (which I desire, but some abhore).

    Maybe I'm unimaginative, but I think there is evidence to the contrary.

  2. Couldn't have said it better myself Mad. While every single power has all of these amazingly colorful names, every class just *feels* the same to me. I even hate, nay HATE the whole Roles concept. When I make a character I do not want to be pigeon-holed into a Role. I do not want anyone to say "Hey man you are playing a Defender so DEFEND ALREADY!" No, I am playing a CHARACTER, who may be a coward. He may do things drastically different than he is SUPPOSED to do, which is why I hate Roles. There's really too many things to complain about so I'll leave it at that and smile knowing August is not too far off (Pathfinder Final rules release date!)

  3. I could always use more. To a point. 4e is shaping up to be a very fine game indeed.

  4. First off I'll toot my own horn and point you to this post I wrote looking at the core content of 4E vs. 3E. It pretty well proved that looking at 3.0 and 4th Edition there is actually more rules -content- provided in the 4E core books. Fluff to a large extent transcends editions and even games/systems, so Wizards is actually doing us a favor by not re-selling all the same old fluff to us again (in the core books, at least).

    That said, I can definitely understand the argument that all the class / race combinations play similarly, but I don't necessarily think that opinion is correct. My campaign has been going on for 14 adventures now, and we had not had a rogue in the party until this last combat, and with the inclusion of the rogue (a melee striker who moves around a lot and moves enemies around a lot also) changed the whole dynamics of how the team worked.

    Speaking to the class roles concept, EVERY edition of D&D has had class roles, they simply weren't spelled out in plain terms within the game mechanics. Fighters have always had more hit points, and they have always been able to be cowards and still CAN be cowards. It's also always been the same amount of LAME when the wizard is killed in melee right next to a cowardly fighter with a ton of hit points. Fighter = higher AC, more hitpoints = built for DEFENSE. Wizard = low AC, less hit points = not built for defense. A class role no more tells you how to play a character than any other rule in the game, they're just instructional mechanics to help players understand how the system is set up to work.

  5. Off the top of my head:

    1. more better goods and services costs lists
    2. rituals that don't cost an arm and a leg to learn and/or prepare, and don't take forever to cast. Especially true for those parties where the PC's are not pooling their money "for the greater good" of the party.
    3. that goes double for the alchemy formulas. Ghoststrike Oil is an especially underwhelming example.
    4. underwhelming magic items - too many items have only a daily power, or their use cost in terms of actions is too high.

    Most of these have been beaten to death on numerous blogs and forums, but hey, you asked for it...

  6. Where are the Metallic Dragons? I want to see stat blocks for the Platinum, Gold, Silver, Copper and Bronze dragons. And I don't want to wait another year for Draconomicon 2. The game is called Dungeons & Dragons... SHOW ME THE DRAGONS!

  7. What's missing in 4e D&D?

    A social aspect in-game. Except for a few Utility powers and skills, there's very little to support a non-combat social facet.

    Now, add a Social power source and I might just explode with glee.

  8. What's missing for me... how can I put this...

    To me D&D 4e is unilaterally focused on combat. Sure there's the "potential" to roleplay in much the same way as there's "potential" for a GI Joe action figure to play house with barbie, but no matter how hard you try there's really no domestic application for that grappling hook shooter. So what's the point?

    Combat is the raîson d'etre for D&D mechanics, social gameplay is effectively left up to the DM which means favoritism will win the day over dice if a player attempts a social action. Powers that are based on distracting or confusing enemies have no application even in something as logical as stealth, instead they are written in instructions that are perfectly lear to leave little in the way of rules lawyering that your enemy because you "confused" him loses an action in the fight, beyond that the power is completely useless.

    That's what's missing for me.

  9. Maybe it's because for all intents and purposes, The kids and I are D&D noobs. But we enjoyed our first forray into 4e. So much so that I actually bought the PHB, MM and the 4e Starter Set.

    We enjoyed the hack outta the module at D&D day.

  10. @madbrew : I disagree. I think maybe its a bit the opposite - i.e. you are an EXPERT at RPGs; heck, you love the hobby so much you decided to blog about it. You can see teh angles right away; you can sit down with a PHB2 and immediately, in 5 or 10 minutes, find ways to make all the characters classes play the same. I think, to most players it takes a bit more work. The lights go on upstairs and there are these moments where they are like "Oh.. right! THAT'S how this ability works." Or.. THAT's what this is written in the RAW this way. The Bards' ability to switch marked targets is one ability that came to mind for me this way. At firtst I was like Meh... whatever... then a few days later I was like DING! Ohhhhh.... it's my favorite 4E class now.

    @jreyst : I think Bartoneous makes a good point. While the ROLE being so explicitly defined is annoying to more experienced players, such as ourselves, I think the designers did it this way to remind newbs what the _general_ job of each class was. I think people have similar issues with Skill Challenges - like... WTF is the point. GnomeStew recently blogged that they just dropped them entirely; but I think its a mistake. SCs are a _framework_ for something that DMs have already been doing for 30 years.

    @Mark : True - I did ask for it, but the readers of TCM are somewhat different from forum readers I think. I think the magic item limits were done to curtail monty haul aspects of previous editions. Maybe too much though... I hate what they have done with SHields for example.

    @ameron : Yes. Givz uz all deh dragoonz nows!

    @DMP : True. I'm mixed on this. So much of a group's storyteller/RP level is group dependent I'm not sure how much the rules affect this. Still though, breaking out the skills a bit more would have been better. I still like to suggest my players pick crafting/profession skills if anything just to have something to roleplay with when the situation is right.

  11. @Jonathan: LoL, I am either humbled at your honest opinion or pissed off at your patronizing!

    Hehe, j/k, I'm neither. You know, I have to hold my ego down with chains and ogre handlers, but you just broke one!

    I will say that I still have fun playing the game (with the right people), so it has that going for it. And anything missing could probably be easily homebrewed in.

  12. I think the ability to play the game at the low end of the magic and equipment spectrum is pretty much gone. Now, I'm not saying it can't be done, Greywulf posted some great examples of old-style 4e a week or so back, but it requires a fair bit of rule tweaking for it to happen.

    But I also think that the trade-off, transparent mechanics, simple power progression and general ability to evaluate relative difficulty more easily, are TOTALLY worth it.

    @Mad Brew, I think you might want to seek counseling to address your severe latent munchkinism. I'm sure it's great for you when you make all those "intelligent design choices" and eventually have a character which is totally optimized and all-powerful, but it sucks for others in your group.

    The fact that it's harder to make gimped or severely sub-par characters is a positive thing, IMO. If you don't think so, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

    I also think that complaining about class roles is frankly fucking ridiculous. The point of classes has always been about party roles, and for every non-healing cleric or similar role-reverser, there are 50 players who end up being cure light wound vending machines, to their regret and dismay.

    @Daniel If you want mechanics for social interaction, might I recommend Storyteller? Or better yet, possibly trying to role-play the social scenes... it's called an RPG, yes?

    Just my $.02

  13. The classes may or may not play similarly, but they are certainly very similar to read. Much like reading Magic cards: only interesting if you already have sufficient background info to put them in context.

  14. Well, my easy answer is Eastern-type stuff, but I assume that's coming, eventually. (The monk's confirmed for PHB3, and we can count on at least one more ki-sourced class there, if patterns hold.)

    What I miss most, though, is the ability to turn damn near anything in the Monster Manual into a PC. As annoying as the LA/ECL thing was, it was less annoying than creating a new 'class' to represent a given monster. (Of course, that's exactly what Savage Species did in 3e, when confronted with the "but I want to play this, and the campaign's not at level LA+1 yet!" problem... so maybe there's just no good solution, given D&D's class-and-level system.)

  15. There's two builds we've found to be difficult in 4e D&D:

    1) a lightly armoured spear fighter
    2) a Warlord who uses Charisma rather than Strength

    Neither of these are insurmountable though (cunning Feat selection picks up the slack) but the end result for such simple concepts feels unsatisfying.

  16. @madbrew : Ohoh... considering we are collaborating on a few things -- maybe I should play nice?! You forced me to go reread my reply -- no patronizing was intended; all compliments. For some reason your comment just reminded me of the days when I used to be the guild leader of a large WoW raiding guild called BANISHED -- the endless discussions of min/maxing each class... ass those were teh days. Oh man.. watching those videos I made just made my dormant WoW genes wake up...

  17. @Wickedmurph: Muchkinism, hmmm, the name calling ensues. Your gamer elitism pretty destroys any argument you may have had in my eyes.

    Of course we could keep it to an intelligent discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments themselves. Someone just had to resort to personal derision.

    I noted that while I like those things, others don't, it is simply what I prefer and what I see missing. But of course, your preferences and opinion must be superior, so let me bask in your snobbiness.

    Of course, complaining about about what others complain about is, how did you put it, totally fucking ridiculous, which is why I must end my own assanine comment here.

    ~end rant~

    Sorry Jonathan, couldn't help myself. *goes gets his coffee, which he knows he should have before he goes troll slaying*

  18. By and large, I'd say the RP is missing. It's too combat orientated.

    Ideally as the product which is likly to give people a start on RPG'ing as a whole, D&D should provide a good mix of combat and RP.

  19. Soo... begging to get shot at again... _IF_ I were to somehow convince my gaming group to lay aside 4E for a while - what shall we do? Pathfinder? or Swords & Wizardry?

  20. @Johnathan: I'll take that bullet and make it my own. You should play Exalted.

  21. Right now I use two house rules for my games. The first house rule has to do with character creation, and the second one is called brutality.

    Basically we roll for characters, and in combat monsters hit harder but in a way so do the players.

    You can check out the details of the house rules above but these basically makes character creation fun again in my opinion, and also combat goes a lot faster and players are a lot more careful.

  22. I've been trying to avoid the "4E vs. The Universe That Has Gone Before" discussions, but I decided I had to weigh in.

    I really think the only thing 4E is missing are a few of the "background color" skills of the previous editions. I'd like to see the craft and perform skills come back; if not for anything but added role-playing fluff.

    As a DM, I never really allowed role-playing to be framed by a game mechanic. For example: If I knew that a certain inn-keeper was going to be a d**k, it wouldn't matter how well the character rolled. The inn-keeper was still going to be a d**k because that's what the story needed.

    For me, 4E has done a bunch of things that I personally needed as a DM, because I'm lazy. The monsters are more concise, I don't have to rule on how powers work (because they're pretty straight-forward), and when designing adventures (and doling out treasure), it's easy to balance (and thus quicker to design).

    My two-cents, of course.

  23. Jonathon - I was going to mention shields as an example of magic items whose use-cost was too high for what they do. The paladin my group had a Shield of Protection. I think the only time it ever got used was the one day he missed the session and I ran his character. Even then I wasn't convinced that it was worth giving up a Standard Action for 5 or 10 damage resistance (I forget which) for one measly turn.

  24. @Mark - yeah.. magic item uses should be Minor actions.. all of em. Plus, they shouldn't be limited to being a daily - they should all be encounter powers at a minimum, or even better. WHAT HAPPENED TO THIEVES EMULATING CLASS SKILLS??? Holy carp' Perlman! That just popped out of my head... Rogue picks up wand. Rogue starts shooting things randomly. Is that even possible in 4E? under the RAW?

  25. @ Hammer: What does facilitate role-playing, does it have a place in combat? How far does one need to go to facilitate it? This game is very much built like a game. I always felt that the last edition only paid lip service to the RP, not like other game with complex emotional attributes or relationship maps bangs and kickers and such? While playing I felt that the game taking care of the parts that I can't fake made it eaiser for me to roleplay no?

  26. The main thing I miss are skills that you can get better at. I loved having characters who were extra-useful in some non-combat situations, and I think in 4E they took that element out. Role-playing isn't all about combat. Stuff like "Use Rope" encouraged players to find creative, non-combat solutions to problems - even if those solutions were sometimes really silly.

    All in all, I'm pretty satisfied with 4E, but it definitely creates a different feel.

  27. Ways to make a killing selling PDF's create cheap quick rituals and other out of game procedures? Create a non-combat skill use system?

  28. MY question back at all of the posters here, is how did the RULES for other editions make it better?

    I don't recall more than fluff and example crap in 2E and 3E, as far as role-playing goes. And you can't be talking about skill checks, because they are still there.

    Magic items? Agreed. I houseruled dailies into encounters circa adventurer's vault. ITems that aren't fun to use suck. It was an easy fix though.

    As to the roles...IMO, they aren't nearly as static as the game's designers would have liked them to be. Especially if you use the rather cool multiclassing rules to "Stretch" your capabilities a little.

    @MadBrew - You obviously never played a wizard/cleric, what a terrible combination. Only slightly worse than the fighter/ranger - now with twice the mark bookkeeping :)

    With all of the builds out there for each class, there is a ton of leeway. I didn't like "being told what to do" either, but I came to realize that's not what the roles are. They are the training wheels for the n00bs.

    NOTHING is preventing a person from playing a cowardly fighter, for example. HAve there ever been mechanical benefits for BEING cowardly? If not, why is there a problem?

    Every month or so, we are seeing new layers of complexity, and new bits and pieces released into the whole.

    Not trying to pick a fight, but sometimes you see what you want to see. In my particular case, The glass is half full :)

  29. For all the people saying that mechanics that facilitate roleplaying are missing, I get the feeling that the 4E designers decided that roleplaying doesn't always require mechanics. It's up to the players and the DM to decide what their character is like, what they did in the past, what their hobbies are, etc.

    I'm glad things like Craft and Profession aren't skills now for three reasons: 1)I don't have to sacrifice skill training just to know how to play the flute, 2)I don't somehow get better at playing the flute by fighting monsters, and 3)my talent and skill at playing the flute doesn't randomly fluctuate based on what I rolled.

  30. @hexmage: yea, I definitely agree on that. I think those type of things were almost always either house ruled or not used at all.

  31. @greywulf:

    "There's two builds we've found to be difficult in 4e D&D:"

    Since the PHB2, both of them are dead simple.

    "1) a lightly armoured spear fighter"

    Barbarian, reflavor to taste. Or a reflavored Warden, if you still want to be defendery.

    "2) a Warlord who uses Charisma rather than Strength"

    Reflavored Bard. Of course, you could just use an inspiring warlord but swap the roles of Str and Cha. It's not like the game falls apart, as long as you've still got a primary and a secondary attribute in there.

    "Neither of these are insurmountable though (cunning Feat selection picks up the slack) but the end result for such simple concepts feels unsatisfying."

    Changing fluff addresses most of the character-concept issues that can be addressed in D&D, with the exception of "I want to play a (higher-level) monster."

  32. I'm going to jump in and say that the one thing that changes the FEEL of 4e for me is the class powers. Yes, they let you do cool stuff, and give variety beyond "I attack again." But they also severely STRUCTURE gameplay, and ironically, I find they LIMIT variety, because players very rarely have their characters do anything (in a combat situation) besides use one of the powers on their list. Instead of players trying to decide what they want to do and using the rules to adjudicate those actions, players decide which specific action (power) allowed by the rules they will perform. To me, it really changes the focus to a meta level, and while I've have fun with 4E, this aspect bothers me a LOT.

  33. @craig - I think you have keyed in here on an important insight. And while it would be easier to "blaim" the players for just playing out-of-the-box instead of from their imaginations; such an explanation seems lacking. Thank you! You've just given me an idea for a couple of new posts focused on something many 4E players, I suspect especially new ones, miss: the GAME is the thing; not the rules. Flybytheseat of your pants rules and pacing is fun, and helps people think creatively. ... hhmmm... much to think about here.

  34. @craig and jon: just wanted to point out this post I made last month:

    I agree with the problem about powers and I think I've figured out a good solution. White out the powers name and fluff then if a player uses the power have them describe it the first few times they've used it.

    It slows down the game initially but by getting players used to the idea of describing their powers it can inspire them to be more creative about it!

    Another idea is whenever a player either does a ton of damage or reduces an enemy to 0 hp with an encounter or daily have them describe it.

    Powers seem boring at first description wise because it's a new thing. The fluff attached to it does the work for you so most people just go with that without thinking about making up their own descriptions.


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