Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Review

by Mike Shea on 3 July 2008

Dungeons and Dragons has been a staple in my nerd pedigree since I was 16 years old. I've played on and off since high school, playing D&D 2nd edition and D&D 3.5. For most of this time I was the dungeon master of the game, putting together adventures, customizing monsters and encounters, and building the story through which the players would all play.

About a year ago I got quite frustrated with D&D 3.5. Our gaming group, a group of adult friends who gathered monthly to play for about four or five hours, had reached level 13. Most of the players ran more than one character, sometimes because another member of the group left and sometimes to fill a role the party missed. During these games every battle took nearly two hours. It got so bad that I had to tune adventures around four, three, and sometimes as few as two combat encounters per adventure simply to ensure we'd leave at a normal time. Modules like "City of the Spider Queen" had to be completely re-written to let our group have any chance at finishing it.

At Gencon 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and, a year later, I now have the 4th edition Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide sitting on my desk.

D&D 4th edition solved many of the problems I have with 3.5. Combat is fast, characters are streamlined but still powerful, I'm able to write and run the adventures I want, and everyone at the table is having a great time.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is the best tabletop RPG I have ever played.

What makes 4th Edition Great

There's a lot of great stuff in 4th edition but a few of these stand out as the clear advantages of the system.

First, the rules are simplified and more consistent. For example, attacks against enemies always mean rolling a d20 and adding your modifier. It doesn't matter if you're hitting with a sword or firing a fireball. You always roll attack rolls. This is a big switch from 3.5 where spells required defenders to roll saving throws while fighters rolled attacks against static defender ACs. The four defenses in 4th edition; AC, fortitude, reflex, and will; make sense and feel natural.

Second, all character classes are fun to play. The cleric in 4th edition sure isn't your daddy's cleric. Though healing is still a large part of a cleric's job, the cleric can drop a lot of damage and boost a party's effectiveness quite a bit. This is the first D&D cleric that is genuinely fun to play.

Third, class powers rock. I remember when I first saw feats in D&D 3.5 how I saw them as the evolution of skills. Feats were skills that actually meant something in combat. Now combat powers take that up a step further. Character powers are the true strength in your character. They are the abilities you will use the most often in any given combat. They are the cinematic action-packed moves that impress the rest of the players and make you feel like a real hero instead of a farmer with a sword.

Fourth, character power and monster power is very well balanced. The power curves in D&D is much smoother from level 1 to 30 than it was from 1 to 20 in 3.5. One of the brilliant changes in D&D 4th edition is the monster power levels. Instead of simply having a monster level that compares to a character level, monsters can come in four different types: minions, standard guys, elite guys, and solo guys. Minions may be as powerful statistically as a player at any level but any single successful attack kills them in a single blow. This way a level 23 party may get attacked by twenty level 20 abyssal ghouls but any single hit on any of them will drop them dead. Normal guys are the typical monsters we're used to. Elite guys are powerful versions of normal guys but count as two, have twice the hit points, and often have some sort of secondary attacks. Solo guys, like dragons and beholders, can fight off an entire party by themselves. Again, these can be at any level, so a level 3 solo white dragon still counts as a single solo creatures as does a level 30 solo ancient red dragon. As a DM, these make it a lot easier to build powerful boss creatures surrounded by threatening fodder like a good John Woo movie.

Fourth, and most importantly, 4th edition is simply more fun to play. Players focus on their powers instead of digging into the minutia of the rules. Fighters have a whole pile of actions to perform while wizards are much more streamlined and focused instead of choosing from hundreds of possible options while the rest of the players look bored.

The Problems of 4E

D&D 4th edition isn't perfect. For one, since every attack requires an attack roll, players will miss a lot more often than they used to in 3.5. Wizards always had the option to cast a magic missile and do a little damage. Now magic missiles can miss, something unheard of for the last 30 years. When your turn may not come around for ten minutes or so, it's pretty lame to miss your roll and have to wait another ten minutes.

Second, 4th edition is really built around miniatures on a battle grid. While players can possibly play D&D with just dialog and maybe some paper diagrams, most of the rules focus on a square battle grid and miniatures. For the past two years or so I've become hopelessly addicted to D&D miniatures so this isn't a problem for me. It justifies the money I've spent.

Third, character creation is still pretty complicated. Attributes, races, classes, and items all have modifiers to your baseline statistics that require quite a lot of page flipping. For example, to calculate your athletics skill check you have to know your level, your attribute modifier, your possible racial modifier, your class trained skills, and any possible armor modifier. For an experienced player this isn't so bad, and its a LOT better than the overly complicated skill system in 3.5, but it makes it difficult to quickly build characters for a one-night game. I personally can't wait for some sort of online javascript character generator that can help me quickly build PCs for a one-night game. In the mean time, I'm back to using PC-like D&D miniatures for quick games or 1 on 1 games.

The Fear of Change

There's a lot of criticism surrounding 4th edition. Amazon currently posts a customer rating of 3 out of 5. Many of the reviewers don't even own the books but simply attack with many various criticisms that generally come down to the following:

  1. 4th Edition is too simplified and misses a lot of the stuff I had and liked in 3.5.

  2. I already have too much invested in 3.5 and I don't want to switch.

  3. 4th Edition is World of Warcraft on paper.

Nearly all of these arguments come down to a single problem; a fear of change.

I don't know how many of the critics are actual Dungeon Masters and I don't know of those who are DMs how many have tried 4th edition, but after reading through and playing through a few D&D 4th edition games, as a DM I can't see ever going back. In my 3.5 games the planning was too complicated, too much time was spent at the table looking up strange rules, and combat took forever. 4th edition gets rid of all of that without losing the tactics and fun that makes a game like D&D great.

I can understand those who feel like their shelf full of 3.5 books suddenly became worthless. However, looking at my own substantial collection of books, I see very few I'd actually give away. Many of them, like the Book of Vile Darkness and the two Fiendish Codices bring me nostalgia even now. Game systems change and there's no one forcing anyone to switch. Everyone knew Wizards would come out with a new version some day and frankly, I'm glad they did.

The "D&D = Warcraft" straw-man argument is perplexing. First, a pen and paper game is never like a computer game. Second, WoW is pretty popular so who cares if it does steal from it. There are elements to D&D that mimic some of the rules of WoW such as the talent trees and some of the character class attributes, but combat is still very much D&D and 4th Edition definitely has its own flavor.

D&D's Biggest Problem

There's one large unwritten problem surrounding a game like D&D, one that has nothing to do with the rules or the cost of the books. Sometimes its just hard to find a group with which to play. I've been lucky in my life to have four of five good D&D groups that played for over a few years. I'm very lucky to have two groups now, one a weekly game that I run with my friends and another that I play in every other week. This mostly comes from the location in which I live, there are enough people around the DC area to find a few different groups of folks. For folks living out in the sticks, however, finding a group can be rough.

Add onto this the stigma of being a D&D player, one we often enjoy together but one that gets in the way when we want to find or build a group, and many might toss D&D aside and focus on computer games instead. I know there were times in my life where I really wanted to play D&D but was too shy to really hunt down and find a good group. It takes a lot of guts to invite yourself into a group of a bunch of strangers, especially for socially awkward folks like myself who tend to gravitate towards games like this.

There's no clear solution to this. The internet helps with sites like Meetup.com and various D&D boards where people meet and get together. However, as long as the game isn't mainstream, it will be hard for a lot of people to play.

I can think of only one solution that may help give players the opportunity to play: adventures written for two players. Like D&D miniatures, D&D could be played by two players, one as a DM and one as a player. The player character would have to fight alone but could fight down a series of nasty bad guys and solve a simple plot. I've read enough posts to see a high demand for one-on-one adventures but so far have seen very few ever published. Like soloing in World of Warcraft, one-on-one D&D adventures have a better opportunity to bring D&D to more people. I hope to see this expand in the future.

Until better solutions can be found, D&D will always be a hobbyist game played by a few folks in dark basements scattered across the country.

4th Edition, My New Favorite Game

As a DM, 4th edition is a dream. It gives me all the tools to build an exciting adventure that feels like an excellent action movie without worrying about power balance. Combat is fast and fun, with lots of options for both the players and the DMs. The rules are easy enough for veteran players to jump right in with mostly logical conclusions to the questions that come up during gameplay.

As a player, D&D 4th edition makes every class fun, gives enough options and customization to build the sort of character one wants to play without so much customization as to overwhelm. Class powers are the next evolution in character action providing the action-packed actions we'd expect in a good book or movie.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is the best tabletop RPG I've ever played.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.