Category Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

Why 4e Fans Love 4e

Whether you’re curious why 4e fans love our edition so much, or you need a reminder of why you love your edition so much — because there’re so many reasons! — welcome all! If you’re a D&D vet, there’s something you should know about 4e fans before I get into all the reasons to love it.

As a general rule, 4e fans don’t care about tradition. Or at least, tradition takes a back seat to fun when the two clash. We’re grateful to Dave and Gary for inventing this incredible hobby, but we don’t particularly care how they played the game or what they might say about how we play. They said themselves that the game is what each group makes it. (Or something to that effect.) Our definition of the D&D experience isn’t limited to highly personalized ideas or memories; for us D&D covers a wide range of play styles and rule sets. For us, the D&D experience requires approximately three things: 1) funny dice, 2) bizarre monsters, and of course 3) loot to steal, claim or otherwise acquire.

Now that that’s been cleared up, lets get to the lists. The first is a broad list of the reasons we love 4e so much, and the second list has more detail. These lists are only a generalized summary; individual 4e fans may of course disagree on certain points.

Balance. This is probably what 4e is known best for among gamers; it’s the first D&D edition where the designers really focused on parity. So long as you follow the advice in your class’ chapter and take an Expertise feat and Improved Defenses at some point*, you’ll have a competent hero! The 4e system is also highly resistant to power gaming; dominating the game requires a lot of planning, and can’t happen accidentally. In short, all PCs are essentially capable adventurers. It’s also very hard for DMs to accidentally over- or under-challenge the PCs, thanks to consistent math.

* If you’re a DM, I highly recommend using the ‘expert’ variant from the Complete 4th Edition; or at least giving each character Expertise and Improved Defenses. These two feats are 4e’s one glaring relapse into the system mastery of other editions. Many DMs and players call them feat ‘taxes’ because the game expects PCs to have them.

Big Damn Heroes. 1st level characters are not knights without shining armor or butter-fingered rogues or magic-users with mere thimblefuls of magic; they’re able adventurers right out of the gate! Characters can perform their shtick and take a few goblin stabs, even at 1st level.

Tactics. Want to role play and enjoy great tactical combat? Well 4e lets you have your cake, and eat it too! 4e is the first D&D edition where the designers ensured that everyone can manage character resources and make fun decisions in combat. Early 4e monsters suffered from a few pacing issues, but have improved dramatically.**

** If you’re a DM, use Monster Manual III and the Monster Vaults whenever possible. And when all else fails, tweak damage and hit points using my Marvelous Monsters guide!

Death is Dramatic. Spontaneous death is rare in 4e; it usually comes at the end of a long and dramatic boss fight. This means that time spent naming your character isn’t just time that you could have spent writing that back-up PC that you’ll probably need. Because unless you do something really stupid, the odds are in your favor even at 1st level!

Easy to Play. Regardless of which side of the DM screen you’re on, 4e is easy to plan and play. Character building, encounter building, and monster building are all straightforward and intuitive. 4e’s simple, unified core system makes combat easy to learn; and the skill challenge provides great guidelines for other kinds of encounters.***

*** Skill challenges have been down a rocky road since they first appeared in the Dungeon Master Guide, and they can be a mixed bag for players and DMs alike. If you’re interested in SCs a DM, I strongly suggest using Stalker0’s Obsidian Skill Challenge System.

Transparency. 4e isn’t coy about its underlying math and gameplay assumptions. It doesn’t tell us how to play the game, but it does tell us how it assumes we’re playing the game. This makes it easy to improvise, to anticipate potential problems, and to make house rules. The 4e rules make DMing easier by explaining how the game works, and then getting out of everybody’s way.

Fantasy Adventure. 4e doesn’t pretend to simulate a realistic world. It doesn’t draw a curtain over the oddities which make D&D fun in order to create an illusion of realism. The worlds of D&D are magical, so it only makes sense that their rules aren’t always the same as ours — even the laws of physics and biology are different!

Dramatic Battles. 4e encourages a few longer dramatic battles, rather than many minor ‘attrition warfare’ skirmishes.

Rule Innovations. 4e is full of innovations, great and small, that make the game more fun in a variety of ways.

New Fluff. This is probably the most subjective point on the list, because fluff is purely a matter of taste. Many 4e fans don’t like all of its fluff, but 4e makes it easy to refluff anything and everything.

Now that we’ve covered 4e’s broad appeals, here are some specific reasons to love 4e, in no particular order.

Monster-Making is Easy. Thanks to monster levels, and explicit monster roles and castes, writing your own monsters from scratch is easy. I’ve spent a lot of time making monsters, and my Marvelous Monsters guide is all about it. I know I’ve already mentioned MarMon, because it’s just that useful!

Encounter-Building is Easy. Thanks to the XP budget, it’s easy to create a variety of encounter styles and scale any of them to groups of differing sizes. (Though parties of less than four PCs can be problematic.)

No Random Stats. Point buy is default. Hit points are static. Everyone gets enough cash to buy basic 1st level gear, and everyone gets loot they can use. (And not necessarily from the highly controversial wish list; the DMG’s real advice to DMs is simply “If nobody in the party uses a long bow, don’t give them a magical long bow as loot!”)

Errata. 4e is the first edition where the designers fixed what few issues escaped editing with free errata. (The infamous ‘math hole,’ which is fixed by the aforementioned feat taxes, being the only glaring exception.) This really demonstrated the designers commitment to the game’s quality and its fans’ happiness.

Magic is balanced. Casters don’t dominate high level games. Utility spells don’t ruin plots.

Simple Rules. There are no long-winded or byzantine rules. 4e uses grab instead of grapple, and every action uses the d20 mechanic — including Turn Undead.

Page 42. The 4e DMG has some great advice, and page 42 provides a set of clear guidelines that make improvising easy.

Everything is in the Stat Block. DMs and players don’t need to go searching through the PHB for spell descriptions during combat, because everything needed to run PCs and monsters is already in their stat blocks.

No Sudden Jeopardy. 4e has no save-or-lose spells, no death from massive damage, or other sudden death effects.

DDI. DDI puts all of the game’s resources at a DM’s fingertips, and the character builder makes making and maintaining your character easy.

Fewer Legacy Quirks. Xth level powers become available at Xth level, rather than at some odd level. Attackers always roll; static defenses rather than static spell DCs. AC and initiative improve with level. Turn Undead is simple. Alignment doesn’t matter.

Retraining. Retraining is default, which takes pressure off of players to optimize, because no mistake is forever.

The Math Works. 4e is the first edition where the designers put real thought into the game’s underlying math, and it shows during play. Even the humble +/-1 modifier remains relevent all the way to 30th level.

Saves as Duration. Rather than act as active defenses, the 4e save determines the duration of harmful effects. This cuts down on in-combat tracking, which speeds it up considerably.

Inherent Bonuses. 4e makes low-wealth campaigns possible, even without extensive system familiarity or lengthy house rules.

Explicit Class Roles. By explicitly labeling each class with a role, the designers told players what they could expect of each class — and more importantly, provided themselves with clear design direction. As a result, every 4e class is good at something.

There’s a Class for That. Every power source (arcane, divine, etc.) has at least one class of each role, which means that  ‘filling out the party’ never leaves anyone playing a kind of character they’d rather not be.

Marks. Marks allow defenders to do their job without relying on 10’ corridors or DM fiat.

Healing Word. Healing word, and similar minor-action heals, allow healers to do their job and have fun too.

Monster Levels and Explicit Castes. Hordes of weaker monsters can reliably hit PCs; boss monsters can survive the action economy. This allows for a wide variety of encounter styles, without accidentally over- or under-challenging the party.

AEDU Classes. The At-Will/Encounter/Daily/Utility scheme ensures that everyone has fun things to do during combat.

Ritual Magic. Magic-users don’t have to choose between utility and combat spells. DMs don’t have to worry about spells ruining the plot.

Healing Surges and Action Points. These two things mitigate the infamous ‘five minute workday.’


I Go Away For One Week…

And WotC announces that 5e is in the works. Well we don’t know much about it yet, so rather than make wildly speculative judgments I’ll only say this: I hope I hate 5e when it arrives. I don’t have a grudge against WotC, but if 5e sucks it’ll make my decision that much easier.

I’m ready to become a grognard.

Why I Don’t Miss the Great Wheel…Much

Like many Planescape fans, I was drawn to the Big Picture it provided for looking at the D&D multiverse. Its planar symmetry implies a kind of grand order behind all the bizarre places and creatures roaming the game’s pages.

Here’s the thing though: the implication of order is only skin-deep. The planar symmetry doesn’t make much sense at all, once you think about it. Here are a few examples:

Air opposing earth makes a certain sense, but fire opposing water? C’mon! One’s a chemical reaction, the other is a state of matter. And what’s with the quasi-elemental planes? Negative energy annihilates air completely, extracts the salt from water, and splits earth into dust. The effects of positive energy are also inconsistent.

The creatures of the planes don’t make much sense either. It’s tempting to imagine underlying patterns in the fact that each outer plane has its exemplars, but again, the symmetry is only skin-deep. The tanar’ri of the Abyss come in all shapes and sizes, as makes sense for a group spawned by a chaotic plane. But the slaad of Limbo are all anthropomorphic toads, and the eladri of Arborea are a race of super-elves. Meanwhile, the archons of Mount Celestia are almost as varied as the tanar’ri.

It makes sense so long as you don’t think about it.


Behind the Smoke and Mirrors: D&D’s Level-Up Treadmill

A while back, someone on an ENworld thread mentioned how 4e disillusioned him to D&D advancement. It cleared out the smoke and mirrors, allowing him to see the level-up treadmill. If you already know what the level-up treadmill is, skip the next three paragraphs.

What’s the level-up treadmill? For example, take a 1st level PC. That PC goes adventuring with his party, kills a few orcs, takes their stuff and then levels up. During level up, he gets a few more hit points, and another bonus or two. Maybe he identifies his first +1 weapon amidst the orc spoils. Now he’s a 2nd level PC, and he goes on another adventure to fight hobgoblins.

Despite his improved combat ability, the PC isn’t any better at killing hobgoblins than he was at killing orcs, because the hobgoblins also have a few extra hit points and another bonus or two. Essentially, he’s fighting orcs with hairier costumes and a different label.

The level-up treadmill isn’t unique to 4e, but the 4e dev team went out of their way to make monster stats fairly uniform and more importantly to make monster design transparent. The 4e DMG is the first DMG that takes an honest stab at monster-writing guidelines: a DM assigns his monster stats based on what he wants the monster to do, and then adds 1 to each of those stats per level. In this way, a monster can be made more or less challenging simply by adjusting numbers up or down. That’s an oversimplification, but it demonstrates the fundamentals of D&D monster design, and the level treadmill — no matter a PC’s level, he’s essentially using the same numbers to fight the same monsters.

Back to our disillusioned ENworlder: I was actually surprised when he explained his problem to us. Not surprised that the treadmill exists, but that he never recognized it until the 4e DMG pointed it out, and that the treadmill is a problem for him. Maybe I’m more tuned in to what lies behind the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of game rules, but I recognized the treadmill not long after I started gaming in my 2e days. (The dragons I fought got older and bigger, but weren’t all that different when it came down to rolling dice.) I’ve always assumed that most D&D gamers recognize the treadmill too, and enjoy it. (Or accept it, at least.) After all, fighting bigger and meaner monsters is a simple way for DMs to give their players a sense of accomplishment and advancement within the game world.

So my question is: have I assumed wrongly? Did you already know of the treadmill, or have I just shattered your blissful ignorance? Is the treadmill a feature or a problem? And is it a mistake for game writers to make the treadmill clear for all to see?


Posted by on 01/09/2011 in Dungeons and Dragons


This Has All Happened Before, and This Will All Happen Again

I’ve been a part of the online gamer community for quite a few years now, I’ve been gaming through two edition transitions, and I’ve made a few observations. In my very first post, I mentioned how a gamer’s game and edition preference is a lot like political party affiliation, for better or for worse. Well today I’m expanding that thought.

The edition cycle is a lot like the election cycle. The few months after a new leader takes center stage is a time of intense debate as euphoric supporters duke it out with disgruntled dissidents to define new policies and political dynamics. Then everyone settles into those new policies and life goes on for a few more-or-less quiet years. But inevitably the Man makes decisions that offend some of his constituency — everybody makes mistakes, and you can’t please everyone anyway. Eventually discussions become more prevalent and more heated, as dissent escalates. Some constituents start noticing policy problems, some just want a change of political scenery. And then someone decides it’s time for a big change, and we start all over again.

It’s no wonder that we complete a lap on the edition treadmill every few years. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s not necessarily even bad. It’s simply a convergence of circumstance and psychology. History is cyclical, and nothing will change that fact short of a drastic change in the communal condition.

This has all happened before, and this will all happen again.

This concept also applies to individual gamers. Most of us started role playing with the edition that was newest when we started, because that’s what was on the shelf at Borders or B&N. Like ducklings, we imprint that edition indelibly upon our minds. We love that edition without really knowing why. When a new edition arrives, many of us refuse to play it. Some of us kick and scream rather than play something new.

But eventually, most of us do try the new edition. Sometimes we go back to our old stand-by, but many of us breath a sigh of relief and think “This isn’t so bad. In fact…I’m having fun!” And then we start talking about different editions, different rules, and the writers who make them. We nitpick and debate everything ever printed under the D&D logo. We start to realize that every game has flaws, and when the next edition comes we try it without kicking or screaming.

We walk the edition treadmill for a few years; sometimes for a single edition, sometimes several. Then something shifts slowly but surely in our hearts, and familiarity becomes more important than playing the latest and greatest edition. We settle into a particular edition and playstyle, happy with its familiarity and content [or blind] to its flaws. We’ve probably adopted a few house rules to smooth out whatever wrinkles there are. When the next edition comes, we can’t be bothered.

It’s not a matter of game tradition, or quality, or anything else. Those are just things we tell ourselves and each other to explain [or defend] our decision to stick with an older edition. It’s a matter of age and taste, pure and simple.

As for me, there’s a good chance I’ll stick with 4e regardless of what 5e looks like. More specifically, I’ll be sticking with the C4 clone. Unless 5e has good tactical rules for stuff like social encounters, domain building and mass combat, I think it’ll be a small improvement on 4e at best. I’m comfortable with 4e, and I have enough material to run it for years!


Posted by on 16/06/2011 in Dungeons and Dragons


Taxpertise, and 4e’s Math Hole


You may roll your eyes that I’m harping on this again, but it’s been whole months since I’ve talked about the math fix feats. Last month I decided to search out professional opinions — especially professional opinions that contradict mine.


This is the thread I started on ENworld. After a month and 300 replies, nobody has yet come up with a single professional opinion to the effect that “No, really, Expertise and Improved Defenses are just options. Really.” Granted, there aren’t many professional opinions, but those that do exist all support the idea that some feats are ‘taxes’ that should be given for free. Here’s what they say:


Mike Donais gives his players Expertise for free. All of them; for every weapon. Because he wants them to be free to pick interesting feats. He made this comment two years ago, and things have changed since then. For example, he probably doesn’t give the new and improved Essentials feats for free, but I’d bet good money that he started giving away Improved Defenses when it came out.


Greg Bilsland gives his players Expertise (again, all of them) and a slew of defense feats for free. Why? Because they’re just not fun for a lot of players, and because “some players might not realize they should take the feats at all.” A direct quote; emphasis his.


Robert Schwalb talks about how these kinds of feats exist to correct gaps in the game’s math. (Scroll down to “Math Feats,” about halfway down his post.) “Currently, every character should take an accuracy feat, a damage feat, and a defense feat.” I don’t think damage is important enough to use ‘should’ with it, but I agree with generally agree with Rob’s sentiment: “If every character has to have these feats, why require them at all? Why not build them into the game directly?”


And then there’s Aulirophile’s firsthand account of GenCon 2008, where the dev panel explicitly said ‘Oh, we changed the math scaling halfway through playtesting and didn’t notice the gap that resulted. We’ll fix the problem in the PHB2.’ (Referring to the first Expertise feats and the second generation of defense-boosters.)


I understand that many DMs are reluctant to deviate from the RAW, lest their campaign be destroyed in an angry explosion of player entitlement and nerdrage. I understand that generally, the rules are well-designed and work out for the best in the end. But to demonstrate how the RAW has its own pitfalls, allow me an anecdote from my current gaming group. This isn’t meant to be a dig at anyone in my group, or any kind of passive aggressive hint to them.


We have a mix of characters, [no pun intended], as do most groups. One player can’t be bothered to worry about optimizing, balance or rules minutia. He happily takes skill trainings and other ‘suboptimal’ feats if they best fit his character. Another player loves D&D’s tactical elements, and likes optimizing. All of his characters have Expertise, a 20 in their prime stat and an accurate weapon or implement. The difference between the two isn’t exactly huge–no more than a few bonuses. But over time, it becomes noticeable. Particularly when we’re in a tough spot on Athas, and the difference between hitting and missing could be a TPK — I’ve practically seen the steam coming out of Tactical Player’s ears after Character Player misses for the second or third time in a row.


I’m not saying that players have to take Expertise and Improved Defenses; I’m not saying that having those feats suddenly makes a character “good enough.” (There are often many factors involved like un/lucky dice, rules mastery…) But I am saying that those bonuses are an assumed part of every character, like the half-level bonus, so I understand the frustration that results from one character not having them. Charging feats to get those bonuses is just like if we were charged feats to get the half-level bonus. The only difference is in degree. Which is why I’m going to use the Complete 4th Edition rules when we play the Fading Earth again. It builds those bonuses right into the game, and addresses a lot of issues that WotC hasn’t.

Here’s a brief history of feat taxes in 4th edition if you’re not in the loop:

Core Game: Most groups don’t play past the heroic tier, especially so early in the 4e era. Those groups who do venture into high levels, particularly paragon and epic, give conflicting reports. Some say high level is too easy for PCs; some say it’s too hard. Gamers of both opinions often report ‘grindy’ combat due to low accuracy, low defenses and low damage. Many DMs notice that PCs effectively lose bonuses between 1st and 30th level. (-4 attack rolls, -2 AC, and -4 to -7 NADs.) These lost bonuses become known as the ‘math holes.’

PHB2: The PHB2 introduces seven feats that just happen to fill the attack and NAD holes with remarkable precision. Anyone who knows anything about game design realizes that they’re too perfect a fit to be coincidental – the devs must have noticed the math holes and released these feats to fill them. Anyone who knows anything about math also realizes how overpowered these feats are – especially Weapon and Implement Expertise. These feats become known as ‘feat taxes,’ because the only reason for any player to not take one is to prove that they don’t have to.

PHB2 Errata: The Expertise feats become feat bonuses. This makes them effective replacements for most attack boosting feats, making the weaker feats obsolete.

PHB3: PHB3 introduces Versatile Expertise, for weapon-implement (weapliment) wielding PCs.

Player’s Strategy Guide: The PSG lays out clear guidelines about what PC attacks and defenses are supposed to look like — guidelines that are almost impossible to live up to without taking feat taxes. The PSG makes several mentions of the Expertise feats as easy attack boosters.

PHB Errata: Great Fortitude, Iron Will and Lightning Reflexes are lowered to heroic status, and are made better at the same time. They now completely eclipse earlier NAD boosting feats, and so become feat taxes.

Essentials: D&D Essentials will make the Expertises even better by adding extra benefits.

More Essentials (Nov 2010): The Improved Defenses feat is published, which effectively replaces Great Fortitude, Iron Will and Lightning Reflexes–for the cost of one heroic feat.

Something that D&D Shares with the Bible

What makes D&D, well, D&D? Is it the d20? Is it elves, dwarves and halflings? Is it fireball-slinging wizards, curing clerics and vancian magic? Is it multi-hued dragons and the other bizarre monsters? Is it random 3-18 stats and stat prerequisites? Is it alignment? Is it dungeons filled with monster menageries and improbable death traps? Is it the Middle-Age-Greyhawk-esque milieu?

It’s impossible to say exactly what defines D&D. But I think that one of its traits not only helps define D&D, but makes it the best-selling rpg for the same reason that the Bible is the best-selling book in America:

It has something for everyone. D&D has human fighters for the farmboy-done-good experience, it has elven wizards for the mysterious outsider experience, it has hobgoblin blackguards for the fascist militant experience, it has centaurs for the some-old-wizard’s-experiment experience, it has war forged for the existential dilemma experience, it has lizard people for the just-plain-weird experience. The list goes on and on. And yes, it’s utterly absurd, but that’s the beauty of D&D.

Theoretically, D&D lets you play anything fantastical up to and including the kitchen sink. That’s not to say that cutting back on options is badwrongfun; I once ran a short Creation campaign, which is a human-only world. But cutting down on options is cutting back on, possibly, D&D’s greatest strength.