Rage against 4E, Rage against D&D “Next”

WOTC is regularly releasing playtest packets for their next edition, generically dubbed “D&D Next.” Supposedly avoiding the moniker “5th edition” will prevent players from becoming jaded with another rules overhaul. Also, “Next” purports to be a return to the “truer” D&D of prior editions, re-introducing many mechanics abandoned in 4th.

(Graphic from http://swordandshieldrpg.blogspot.com/2012/05/d-next-my-1000-word-take.html.)

Though I haven’t (yet) playtested with a group, as a DM of 17 years I form definite opinions based solely on reading the rules.

Prior Research

One endeavor uniquely qualifies me to judge how tabletop rules actually work: In college, I undertook unprecedented effort to track statistics in play. Each session, players were to report:

  • How often they hit/missed an attack
  • How much damage they dealt
  • How often they were hit/missed by foes
  • How much damage they received
  • Were they ever unconscious
  • (etc)

I compiled these reports into master spreadsheets, where I would evaluate:

  • % contribution to group totals
  • Ranking within the group for damage dealth, hit rate, killing blows, etc.

Since the group consisted of 11 players, I had a wealth of information. I’ve never heard of another GM doing anything like this; perhaps they have, but I’ve never heard of it. GMing is daunting enough without extra homework (let alone math-based homework in a storytelling medium!)

This experience revealed specific trends:

  • Players with above average ability scores (rolled) DOMINATED play with both accuracy and damage
    • And as a result, garnered most of the party’s rewards, because the party wanted to reward their star quarterback
  • One player was cheating, manipulating his dice rolls. (Ambiguous in a single session, overwhelmingly evident in trending statistics.)
  • With access to 4th-spell-level Flamestrike, a previously useless druid started contributing over 50% of the group’s damage henceforth
  • Spellcaster accuracy was the envy of melee combatants, since theassumptionis that it hit, and only “saving throws” could negate

These results led me to alter my GM positions:

  • Ability Scores were point-buy, no matter what system. This generated complaints from players who wanted to “be a rockstar,” but the data proved that every rock star came at the expense of another player being a dud.
  • I despised the Vancian “spells per day” magic system, though it was years before D&D offered an alternative
  • I despised the Linear Warriors/Quadratic Wizards progression, because again, it meant that rock stars came at the expense of other players, whose usefulness had vanished. (Again, years before D&D offered an alternative.)

Where 4E Failed

At a glance, 4th edition seemed to solve my complaints. For the first time, classes had identical progression; acquiring powers at the same rate. Wizards and Clerics rolled attacks, and could miss. This chafed spellcasters, but its parity is hard to argue. 4E introduced martial classes with AoEs and battlefield acumen (like the Warlord), which made playing physical combatant as interesting as spellcasting.

For the first time in D&D, the GM’s chair wasn’t the only intriguing one. I finally wanted to play. And a melee class! Previously unheard of.

But 4E introduced a host of additional problems. Hit point totals were so large, combat lasted forever — even with quick rolls, rapid arbitration and easy encounters. I became loathe to design an adventure with >3 encounters because it would take multiple sessions to resolve.

The “all characters can heal themselves” mechanic, combined with actual healing powers being Minor Actions (that is, free compared to attacks) meant that healing was never an issue, so parties never felt in danger. Encounter powers, plus the option of restoring everything with “extended rest” perpetuated the 15-minute workday. The most viable tactic was for players to unload everything on the monsters, rest, rinse, repeat. Need your Daily power back? Just take a longer rest. More about this in detail: http://angrydm.com/2011/02/tearing-4e-a-new-one-short-rests-and-encounter-resources/

The introduction of different “types” of actions meant lost minutes figuring out if Power A could be done simultaneously with Power B (quite often getting it wrong).

While player progression was linear across the board, combat became incredibly complex with a bevy of power interactions, particularly when new classes were introduced (because there was no simple way to multiclass).

Where D&D Next Fails

The return to Vancian magic alone is as offensive to me as a return to villain stereotypes in movies. I thought we’d evolved but it turns out regression is preferred. The knee-jerk reaction of many players to 4E was They Changed It, Now It Sucks, cementing faithfulness to Pathfinder and d20 generic systems among prior edition purists. Wizards is pandering to the purists with a bevy of recycled material. (Seriously, how much creative energy was required to regurgitate spells I’ve had memorized for 15 years?)

Atop this, surveys for D&D Next ask loaded questions like, “Does this FEEL like D&D?” If you’ve played 1st, 2nd, basic, cyclopedia, AD&D, 3rd, 3.5 for 20 years and 4th edition for 2 years, naturally regressive rules feel like D&D, regardless whether they’re fair, effective, interesting or useful. You could restore Jim Crowe Laws and ask whether it feels like the 1950s. If you’re nostalgic for your high school/college buds, D&D Next reminds you of the malt shop where the juke box played nothing but hits. Ignore deliberately unfair rules because they add to the atmosphere. The token rogue feels like a token rogue again!

Clever marketing, Wizards. Most impressive.

D&D Next makes some attempt at parity; spellcasters get spells, physical combatants get “Maneuvers,” which use a gradually-depleting per-day resource (similar to memorized spells, but with infinite room to improvise). Rogues and Fighters are granted additional damage (or sometimes suffer reduced effects) through “expertise dice,” which are the resource for Maneuvers, the melee version of spells.

But even this is misleading and hard to gauge. For example, Vancian magic presents the return of the Spellbook, a Wizard-only artifact that was essential to play, crippling to lose, and nearly incomprehensible to follow. Like all classes in prior editions, rules for Wizards were unique, so any GM that hasn’t recently perused them will be fairly lost. A wizard’s spellbook is integral to his existence and success…damaging or stealing it can provide instant plot points. Stealing the fighter’s sword lacks this impact, not just because the rules are different, but because fighters are less interesting than wizards: As PCs, as adventure hooks or as villains.

D&D Next compounds the issue. In addition to attacks, spells, skills and feats, characters must also choose backgrounds, specialties, and maneuvers. The rules for skills don’t apply apply to maneuvers. If you enjoy playing rogues, you might love the rules for Rogue. And never worry about rules for magic. Life isn’t so easy for the GM. “You can do what? Ok…”

To demonstrate, the rules for Cleric in the latest playtest material are 6 pages long. Compare to Fighter, which only covers 2 pages. Would you assume these classes were comparably complex and intriguing? You may feel that’s a misleading statistic, because Cleric creation requires choosing a deity, and deities (with related powers and spells) had to be explained. Okay, that makes sense…but why were the Fighter’s styles so boring/simple by comparison?

The rules don’t play nice together, as evidenced by the Character Sheet. There’s a place for maneuvers and a place for spells; either space is wasted on 50% of the classes. Is that efficient? I don’t just mean on the sheet — I mean in play when different rules govern different abilities. This is true even within each class. The rules of Vancian magic don’t cover all spellcasting; there are also at-will spells (a nod to a 4E improvement) and rituals, both of which are like spells, but governed by different rules. A high-level damage spell grants a saving throw to reduce its effect. Does a high-level fighter’s attack grant the same?

Who knows? Only the experts at their particular classes/subrules.

When D&D was first created, the tabletop genre was ill-defined. There weren’t video games that had played havoc with character balance and creation options in order to learn hard lessons. To the Rogue, someone playing a Druid might as well be playing a different game.

D&D Next wants to return to that for nostalgia’s sake. I cry foul.

Worse, while it fell short in many ways, the lessons implemented in 4th Edition has nowhere to go, because they’ve been abandoned. So we don’t get gradual improvement. It’s a return to Old Ways A with known faults or Old Ways B with known faults.

Innovation has no place.

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  • Steve Sun

    Wow, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    “(Seriously, how much creative energy was required to regurgitate spells I’ve had memorized for 15 years?)” is awesome! :)

    I’ve been taking some effort to try and incorporate the best of 4E into something more Balanced and Open.

    • JasonRPeters

      Heh, same; been designing a point-buy class system since I got the first “Next” playtest package. Never felt compelled to before, but there were so many aspects of 4E I liked that I thought WOTC was getting closer. Either they’re not or I’m in the minority; either way, I decided to try my hand at designing.

      • Steve Sun

        Nice.
        My tentative efforts are towards something simpler, abandoning the 3-18 altogether. It works straight with Point-Buy for the +3, +4 modifiers that people actually use for Defenses, Skills and Attacks, relegating the 3-18 to those who like the old flavor. Math has been matched effectively against the “scaling” Feat Tax bonuses of Expertise, Improved Defenses. Feat Tax has also been cut down, and more Custom Feats create variety eg. the benefits of Crossbow Exp and Staff Exp have now has been broken off and can apply to other Items like Wands and Bows.
        I hope to work with a few Core Classes and extract the “Core” of them out of the terrible Bloat that WotC has created, as well as relevant Feat Support etc. This is followed with more balance-tuning by separating Roles from Classes, and letting Classes mix and match Roles, switching them where required (with severe constraints). This prevents certain Classes (Rogue, Cleric) from being “optimised” Strikers or Leaders etc for the Game. With that, Flavor should affect functionality less, so there is ostensibly more freedom of Choice, albeit at the cost of Uniqueness. So far I’ve been testing this on my 4E table top group since May and the results have been pretty good, with a good Wizard Defender and a “Brutal Scoundrel” Barbarian.

        There’s also some dabbling with Optional Rules and Power Structures to refine things like AEDU. This variant lets Players turn Encounter Powers into “Daily” versions (which they can decide after they hit or miss), which then makes them Save Ends or Encounter-Long. By reducing the number of Player Options somewhat (integrating Dailies into Encounter Powers halve the number of Standard Action options), Gameplay can ideally be faster, and new Players can hit the ground running without going through a half-dozen books and then still being lectured some by experienced gamers, which I think is the REAL reason why Table Top is losing Ground in terms of Market Expansion.
        There are also other Class Variants (optional) such as a Fighter that uses At Will Techniques with Focus Points he generates throughout combat, and a Vancian “Wizard” (yes I know you dislike Vancian) that should be fully playable and balanced in 4E, with Level-Scaling Damage that is capped based on Spell Level. Many of these most-powerful Daily “Spells” though require “Full-Cast”, that is a return to 2.5E when Spells could actually be interrupted or Enemies could take the chance to run for cover.
        I’ve yet to test the Wizard model yet though. To differentiate it from 4E I tentatively refer to it as “Magus”.

        • Steve Sun

          The AEDU variant also opens up 6 slots for Players (instead of the typical 3 Encounter 3 Utility at Lv 10), who can then populate all the Slots with either Utility or Attack Powers. While there are fewer Choices of Powers, there are more configurations, and a Defensive Player might have more Utility choices while an Offensive Player might load up on Attack Powers.

  • Jay

    Vancian magic is what makes D&D for me.

  • Mouse

    Agree with Jay. What’s so bad about it? Anyway, balance game play is stupid. It just isn’t realistic anymore. Although d&d is fantasy, the premise is still rooted down to what plausible.

  • Jake

    For the ideal 4e experience, play WoW, or other similar mmos. WotC is desperate to salvage whatever they can from what 4e threw away. This has less to do with nostalgia than it does WotC trying to get the ‘old guard’ back after throwing them gleefully under a bus.

    Turns out that most wanting an mmo-mechanics experience are invested in mmos, and really don’t care to regress to books and character sheets and dice for an experience that too really reminds of wow-style mmos.

    MMO’s have better graphics and music. Often, they’re also cheaper than spending hundreds of dollars on rulebooks, minis and battlemaps (warhammer tabletop is not everyman’s game, WotC. Shame on you for failing to apprehend this).

    4e’s greatest failures are not in its mechanics, though they’re mediocre; its in the presentation and employ thereof. They made a lackluster mmo-lookalike infrastructure of rules, then prettied it up by pulling a TSR Dragonlance on flagship seeing Forgotten Realms.

    It unequivocally made it clear, across the boards, that they couldn’t throw their existing fans away fast enough to try to cash in on that sweet, sweet mmo money. Greed killed D&D before, and TSR with it. Those that do not learn from the pat are often doomed to repeat it.

    Such as is happeningyet again with this. Pitiful.

  • Jake

    Also…if you’re relying on complexity of mechanics to make a class interesting for you, you’re kind of tragic in the context at hand. You might personally like elaboracy and directly relate it to your enjoyment, though your retreat to old presumptions betrays your thought process. Rogue in 3e/thief in older was never token and worthless. In 1e/2e, they were often overshadowed by wizard magic, but still were far from worthless.

    Looks to me like you didn’t look past direct combat numbers to assess that though, which suggests to me that you never had, or never were, a dm that actually used those classes to their actual potential. Frankly, in 3e, rogue got terrifyingly strong and very capable of creating the situations all its strengths could exploit, and ‘token rogue’ syndrome was an indicator of petiole at the tale being quite brainless when figuring out what to do with what.

    Even in.1e and 2e, thief was terrifying in its element. And very quick to level, much moreso than late-level juggernaut mages and mid-level kneecapped warrior variants.

    3e did away with a lot of that, and melee got just as scary as mages. By epic levels, everyone was terrifying, our at least had the tools available to be if someone wanted to build for that. I suspect you never really played a fighter in 3e, or explored multiclass options. Fighter/rogue could get traumatically scary in a fight, since direct combat stats seem to be all you’re pondering.

    Bard could get truly scary too, though it was monks that truly went into lolwut territory. Couldn’t even sunder their weapons or armor, as they usually didn’t have and certainly didn’t need any. Their mobility eventually made even a hasted foe look slow and lumbering, and if built right could duke it out quite well with a fighter, barbarian, ranger or paladin, and with clad-granted SR, prove quite perilous for magic tossers.

    And all their saves were good. And they got some damn cool ki powers, hailing all the way back to 1e monks in many ways for most if them.

    So, I really don’t know what you’re on about that only 4e made melee ‘interesting’. Looked to me like it made everything very modular and all you did was pick the color of your rectangular lego, not its shape, cause damn was 4e boring to me. It tried too hard to be tabletop wow with a warhammer-level mini/terrain call.

    4e was just greed in a glossy paged can. They wanted to reel in the mint from the wealthier demographic that’s historically had little issue dropping a few grand on their collections of Warhammer minis and terrain pieces while simultaneously making the game itself some bizarre attempt at being a nonstop wow dungeon.

    Every time I tried to give it another chance, the only fun I personally ever had was despite the game itself, not because of it. A good dm can tell a great story in most any vehicle, but it WA very apparent immediately that 4e was not made to foster anything but combat.

    And if combat is all one wants, mmos do it better, more prettily and more cheaply for you’re own pockets concern.

    So, I can’t disagree with what your opinion is on what you’ve enjoyed and didn’t, but neither I nor most I know could agree, and I seriously suspect you never played the classes you’ve generally described as being halfway irrelevant.

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