4e D&D is a game of big damn heroes battling big damn villains. Like any other edition, 4e can be used in many ways. It supports political intrigue and exploration as well as any other, and arguably better; it can simulate a fantastical reality with a bit of refluffing; it can be used for dungeon delving with a few considerations; it can support sandbox adventures, with the right tweaks. And so on. But where 4e D&D really shines is dramatic action-adventure, like that seen in The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and other adventure films and books.
If you’re accustomed to other D&D editions, 4e’s philosophy and rules may seem strange and uncomfortable. Whereas other editions are written with strategic wargame-like gameplay first and foremost in mind, with combat being something to avoid whenever possible in early editions, 4e is very strategically written with the philosophy that combat ought to be fun in and of itself. So while you can use 1d6-goblins random encounter tables and 10-by-10 rooms with 2 orcs in 4e, this edition is much more fun when you think big. Big environments, big challenges, big fantasy, big drama, and big action!
To put 4e and its game style in context, it may help to read a fellow gamer’s thoughts on D&D’s different flavors, which I’ve copy-pasted to the end of this post.
Rules-wise, there are a few common DM advisories to be aware of:
1. 4e monsters can be pretty grindy in the first two books, so the MM3, the two Monster Vaults, and the Dark Sun Creature Catalogue are all highly recommended. If you do use the MM1 and/or the MM2, it is advised that you MM3-ize the monster math. MM3 on a business card is very handy, and if you get into writing your own monsters my Marvelous Monsters is even better.
2. WotC was very Johnny-on-the-spot with errata during the 4e era, so there is a great big errata pdf covering all the 4e books. Most of it is just minor clarifications and tweaks to powers and traits, so most of it isn’t really necessary. The only highly-recommended errata is that for the Stealth rules and that for Skill Challenges.
3. Speaking of skill challenges, some fans like ’em and others don’t. Pretty much everyone agrees that WotC never really got the presentation/explanation right, but some fans have gotten SCs to really shine. One of ENworld’s regulars wrote the Obsidian Skill Challenge pdf to help other 4e DMs use SCs.
4. There are three so-called feat taxes in 4e, which much digital ink has been spilled over and which nobody to this day is quite sure what the heck WotC was thinking when they were written. There are many minor variations of fixes for these feats; the most common of which is to ban any feat with ‘Improved Defenses,’ ‘Weapon Expertise,’ or ‘Implement Expertise’ in the title, and simply give every PC a +1 to all attacks and defenses at 5th, 15th, and 25th levels.
5. Classic 4e books and 4e ‘Essentials’ books can all be used together. Some fans love the E-classes, some hate ’em. What everyone agrees is that the E-classes are WotC’s attempt to make 4e retro, and are in no way essential. In fact, the ‘essentials’ books totally lack rituals, arguably one of 4e’s greatest contributions to D&D.
6. Oh and for the love of all that is good and geeky, do not run Keep on the Shadowfell! It was WotC’s first 4e adventure, and is generally considered one of the worst in D&D history. It’s grindy and doesn’t play to 4e’s strengths.
7. Like characters in every other edition, 4e PCs become more and more reliant upon their magical items as the game progresses. The difference is that 4e explicitly points this out in the PHB, and then provides the Inherent Bonuses variant to DMs who don’t want their PCs to depend on their magical bling. (The variant can be found in the DMG2 and the Dark Sun CS.)
I think that’s about it. Enjoy!
Lastly, and as promised, Armchair Gamer’s thoughts on D&D’s different flavors:
Flavors of D&D (Part II)
Knaves & Kobolds
Tropes: Treasure is the primary focus and reward. Life is cheap, and fighting’s usually for suckers; a fair fight, doubly so. Exploration is central, with a focus on logistics and resources. Interaction is also important and focused primarily on allies (PC and NPCs) and encounters within the dungeon. Party unity is less of a thing than in other styles, and the endgame of acquiring a stronghold and political power is more emphasized. Worldbuilding can be done, but is less important than the in-play experience—there’s a strong streak of parody and satire, at least in the original forms of this style.
System Thoughts: OD&D appears to have been built around/built up this style, and Holmes Basic, B/X and BECMI are close enough to apparently do it well. AD&D contains enough roots of it to be a reasonably good fit for it. 3E and 4E lose the endgame and strongly de-emphasize the ‘avoid combat’ and ‘collect treasure’ elements of this style, and have numerous other issues with it.
Gamma Rays & Godslayers
(aka Galactic Dragons & Godwars)
Tropes: This style revolves heavily around ‘muchness’—use all that cool stuff put out by TSR/WotC, other companies, and even other media sources. (“Gamma Rays” in the new title highlights the overlap with sci-fi, comic books, and the beloved GAMMA WORLD game. ) Thus, PCs will tend to have vast resources and confront major threats. The combat and magic systems will therefore need to account for broad varieties of power and effects; exploration will likewise be broader in scope. Realism generally takes a backseat to ‘rule of cool’ or flights of pure imagination. This strikes me as one of the two flavors that’s most likely to emerge as the evolution of a campaign instead of being present at the start—but it also seems to be one of the two that’s most likely to take us outside the realms of D&D system-wise.
System Thoughts: OD&D is loose enough to handle it; B/X probably caps too early, but BECMI can really engage it once things get high-enough level, especially if one adds in all 36 Immortal levels. AD&D has the vast arrays of magic, monsters and gods to help this style, as does 3E, although the latter requires some work to keep the non-casters competitive. 4E fits elements of this style into Epic, but in a more contained way, and Epic support is one of the things that edition lost out on.
Dungeoncrawling & Demons
Tropes: This is the ‘stereotypical’ D&D style (although the original apparently hews more closely to K&K). Combat becomes more central, but can be anything from quick and dirty to elaborate tactical setpieces. (Given the tendency to fit a lot of encounters into a ‘crawl’, though, faster and simpler combat systems appear to be preferred.) Exploration remains a key element, but shifts away from logistical challenges to engaging with traps, hazards and the like. Interaction tends to take place outside the dungeon more than inside it. This is a style I really don’t have much of a feel for, so I welcome revision and expansion.
System Thoughts: AD&D and its adventures (especially the tourneys) and style really define this flavor, it seems. WotC is bound and determined that this flavor is D&D, but the systems designed under their aegis fit better with other styles.
Castles & Cronies
(thanks to Daztur for pointing out this one)
Tropes: I’m going to go with a selection from Daztur’s original post here:
It grows out from the fact that a lot of TSR-D&D modules were crazy generous with loot and if adopt that as standard for your own adventures and play in a way in which player death is very rare then the players will eventually accumulate big gobs of cash and magic items. Just like the accumulate lots of magic items the players get more and more allies (often more like a cross between DM PCs and spare PCs than Old Geezer’s henchmen and hirelings, the henchmen rules usually aren’t used here) almost always including intelligent flying mounts. This play style is often reinforce with how saves work in TSR-D&D (it’s very hard to kill high level characters with instant death attacks).
When you have that much treasure and that many allies a lot of play becomes the Sims: Fantasy Billionaire Edition. The players build or take over a base and make out complicated floor with descriptions of what’s where and suites for different PCs and important allies with notations about where things like who gets to hang the tapestry made out of goddess hair in their bedroom and where the solid gold throne of the dwarven kings gets put in relation to the dinner table. Also with no real magic item economy the players track which ally gets their cast off magic items and whatnot. A lot of play involve wrangling the PCs’ allies and helping them in various ways.
Despite having a big damn castle there’s no real domain management or political intrigue, even if some of the PCs are rulers, aside from “the kingdom is in danger, let’s go save it!” These games tend to be long running with low player turnover so they can end up creating a lot of interesting settling detail over the years.
System Thoughts: As Daztur points out, this seems to fit into the later era of TSR D&D, when PCs are more resilient. It’s sort of the grounded cousin to G&G, and like that style, is usually an evolution of an earlier campaign (although Birthright for 2E starts out in this style or a close cousin to it). Domain management rules and the like are helpful, but apparently not essential. 3E and 4E handicap it by making the party more self-reliant and the economy more magic-item centric.
Paladins & Princesses
Tropes: PCs are generally virtuous and altruistic heroes; even those with a mercenary streak tend to be more like Han Solo than Boba Fett or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Combat tends to be dramatic but low on PC lethality. Exploration is about heroic quests, the thrill of discovery and interaction than logistics and resources. Interaction is a central element of this style, and tends to the melodramatic. Worldbuilding is also key, but focused on story and dramatics rather than ‘realism’ or the elaboration of premises.
System Thoughts: 2E wanted to be this flavor, but was running on a DC&D engine. I’d like to say BECMI can do it if you tweak a few things, but that might be a mix of presentation and wishful thinking. 4E fits it very nicely, with quest rewards and the like, so long as you can deal with some of the darker-edged PC options in the core.
Simulation & Spellcasting
Tropes: This is the style that follows the perceived AD&D tradition of codifying everything. Rules don’t necessarily have to be minutely detailed, but they do need to be comprehensive and capable of handling the interactions and implications of setting elements. There’s a strong push towards “real-world physics + magic” in this style, and magic itself tends to be very rational, reliable, and almost scientific. Worldbuilding is heavy here, but in a ‘hard fantasy’ mode as opposed to a dramatic one.
System Thoughts: You can find the roots of this style in AD&D, with monster ecologies, planar physics and elaborate details on how spells work in various situations. 3E took this element and ran with it once it got out to the players.
Misfits & Mayhem
(aka Warlocks & Warlords. Thanks to neonchameleon for the title, and to a bunch of posters for helping refine this one)
Tropes: The scruffier and somewhat more cynical cousin of P&P, with PCs who are generally well-meaning but often don’t fit into ‘typical’ fantasy molds, either as social outcasts, non-traditional races or classes, or other molds. They don’t have to be outcasts within their own societies—4E really ran with the ‘fantastic world’ at points—but they certainly don’t feel like they belong in the humanocentric milieu of earlier D&D. Adventures tend to be somewhere between P&P and DC&D, with the emphasis on action and multiple elements, often shifting mid-encounter to create a feeling of complication and ‘how do we get out of this?’
System Thoughts: All versions of D&D that run long enough have evolved towards elements of this style, if you have the right supplements. 1E could do it with enough issues of DRAGON; BECMI with the Creature Crucible books; 2E with the right setting supplements (Planescape and Dark Sun especially) and Complete Handbooks, and 3E with Savage Species. 4E baked it more into the core than any other edition.
Original (part I) post here.