Criticisms of 4th Edition

January 12, 2009 at 6:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
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I have a tendency to like new things. The real test, though, is whether I like such a thing after I’ve had some time to get acquainted. Inevitably, there are problems that only emerge after a lot of time has passed, and the true metric as to whether I like something is to what extent those problems bother me.

4e is about six months out now, and I’ve had a few thoughts about things that don’t work for me with or bother me about 4th Edition.


Conditions an abstraction for various conditions that the system wouldn’t otherwise model very well, if at all, and I’d say they do a good job overall. Being dazed, slowed, or on fire changes the dynamic of a fight in interesting ways.

However, conditions that shut PCs down, possibly for many turns, are a recipe for frustration. The most obvious offender is Stunned (“OK you have to stop participating”). You can run into trouble if you go overboard with Immobilized, Blinded, or Restrained, as these can quickly shut down a melee character, leaving them with nothing to do but make basic ranged attacks instead of using attack powers.

One way to avoid this is to be attentive when choosing monsters, particularly when it comes to status effects. There are some combinations that could be too nasty if you don’t have a party that doesn’t have a quick way of dealing with status effects, like some of the ettercap and spider encounters.

Still, no matter how seldom it happens, when it might be 15 – 20 minutes before someone’s turn comes up (depending on the speed of play), I’m not sure there’s any way around the fundamental uncoolness of losing your turn.

Optimized vs. Non-optimized

Some races are particularly well-suited for some classes. I think of it almost as a tiered system, where the top tier race/class combinations get you 20/16 or 18/18, second tier can get you 18/16 or 20/14. The bottom tier? I suppose you can always have an 18/14.

You can make a lot more combinations work if you settle for a 16 in your primary. Melee characters can afford to do this with high-accuracy weapons. For casters, this isn’t a very good idea; outside of magical items, they don’t really have a way to trade up to better items.

The bottom line here is that if you show up with a non-optimized character in a group with 20s and 18s, you’re asking for trouble. The DM has to make monsters that challenge the majority of the group. You can end up completely ineffective or dead.

Also, as a side note, there are some races that are just inherently more versatile than others. Chiefly, any class with Strength as a primary is hugely versatile primarily because Strength is a primary stat for most if not all melee classes (at least one build in ~6 classes!). And, while I think it’ll become less of a problem as more classes with more builds come out over time, there are also some race/class combinations that are objectively better, as some classes have more clearly defined needs for one or two stats.

Level 1 is a corner case

Level 1 is way, way, way more viable than it used to be. Nevertheless, I’m of the opinion that it’s still pretty rough when it comes to hitting things. For one, nobody has any magic items yet. While it’s true that AC for monsters is ~2 higher than the other defenses, melee characters have the option of picking a more accurate weapon or, more importantly, exploiting combat advantage. Casters just don’t have that luxury.

The other problem is that you don’t have much room for varying difficulty on a per-monster basis; your monsters are either giving you approximately even odds (i.e., level 1) or they’re harder (i.e., level 2+). I think the optimized vs. non-optimized problem is even more pronounced as a result, at least for casters.

Hand-tweaking monsters, handing out magic items early on, leveling your PCs up a level or two quickly, or simply starting them off higher are all easy solutions, but it’s a shame that you have to micro-manage this issue. On the other hand, it is only for one level.

Too many books?

It’s inevitable: more books coming out means more options. Martial Power adds a boatload of new powers and feats for each martial class. Adventurer’s Vault added some much needed variety to the list of magic items. The Manual of the Planes, while light on crunch overall, still has a number of paragon paths and magic items. While the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide featured only one new class and a couple of races, it had plenty of new feats. In August, Adventurer’s Vault 2 will hit the shelves. PHBII comes out in March, followed by Arcane Power in April.

For me, choice fatigue isn’t purely theoretical, either— despite the relative newness of 4th Edition, there was plenty of book-passing during character creation for my friend Avi’s game, as people flipped through the Adventurer’s Vault, PHB, and the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide. My ranger reached level 3 recently, and I had to spend some amount of time going through the two books already available.

Admittedly, a character creator would actually go a long way towards making this less painful. Games like Neverwinter Nights have a ridiculous number of options, and yet it’s not terribly painful to look through them because it’s all in a list on a screen rather than a half-dozen books spread out on the table. The character creator looks pretty good so far, in the sense that it gets the job done.

There’ll probably be more

There are a couple of other problems I have that are germinating in my head. Despite those as well as the above issues, I’d say that I still think that 4th Edition is the best edition so far. I haven’t been into D&D for such a sustained period of time since 2nd Edition. I’m far less inclined to attach a theory vs. practice sort of qualifier to my thoughts on the game, as well.

  • I don’t think too many books will be a problem. Remember, D&D 3.x issued individual books for each class with loads of new variations. The consolidation of these into three core books (Martial, Devine, Arcane) is a big step forward, while classes/powers/rituals/etc in the mainly DM orientated books like MoP, Open Grave etc will be up to the GM to include as they wish.

  • I agree a bit on conditions. I think some monsters, like the Gibbering Orb, go WAY too far, dazing guys every single turn and all manner of other dickery. I also up front don’t like stun. Not as a DM or as a PC. As a DM, it makes high level solos a joke. In the epic tier when a Solo should be a devastating force of nature, it feels like it’ll just be stunned with Legion or something else and be utterly destroyed. (Which is why I often give my very important guys immunity to Stun and Sleep, so they can’t just be invalidated instantly). As a player, Stun is terrible. Immobilize isn’t that bad, there are some things you can do as a melee character to prepare for that. But Stun is just, ugh.

    I’m curious, which races do you think suffer most from lack of optimizeable choices? What would you do with them? I’m big on making my own races, and race balance and strength always interests me.

  • @Hammer: I suppose that’s fair, though you’ll have to bear in mind that I wasn’t so big into 3.x. I’m used to a very different ratio of fluff to crunch, and the amount of in-depth crunch on here has been a bit shocking for me.

  • @Wyatt:
    That’s a good point re: solo monsters and stun effects— I’d forgotten about that. It might not be *too* bad if those effects are “save ends,” if only because most solos appear to have ridiculously high save bonuses, meaning that the effect probably won’t last for much beyond a round.

    The more I think about it, the more I think I might be off-base on race/class combinations as far as stats are concerned. It might be worth sounding this out in a separate post, just to think out loud. On the other hand, maybe I can come up with something a little more systematic & simultaneously leverage my meager coding skills.

    But basically it seems reasonable that every race should be a top-tier contender (e.g. 20/16) in one or two builds, and a second tier (e.g. 18/16) contender in a bigger number of others. I’m not sure whether that’s the case, but I suspect that some races fare better than others.

  • I think it would be interesting to see. Personally I’m not much of an optimizer. When I come up with a concept I just do it, without caring much about the numbers. With 4e I’ve noticed that this tends to work out for me – even in a party with some hardcore guys who get their act together much better than me, I don’t feel left behind, even if I am a Dwarf Wizard or an Elf Warlock. (As you said, with weapon-using classes, you can just pick a high-proficiency weapon and catch up pretty well.)

    However, I don’t deny that those discrepancies do exist. My Dwarf Wizard capped at an 18 Int, at character generation, and that’s because I purchased it to start with! An Eladrin Wizard could easily have 2-4 points more than me, which is a +2 to hit and damage over what I could do. So I’d like to see a post going in-depth about these discrepancies, and whether they’re big downers, irrelevant, and if that bad, how to fix them. I’m working on a campaign setting with a whole roster of new core races, so this kind of information is really useful to me, and it’d be nice to hear it from somebody who doesn’t seem like the “hardcore optimizer” type. Somebody who can really speak to me. I think that’s you, if you’d be up for it. ;)

  • Heh. Well, I can’t make any promises, but I am working on something that’ll give me some data on this. If I have any interesting conclusions, I’ll be sure to write about them.

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