There is little dispute that when 4th edition made its debut, it was further from previous editions than any other rules update that had gone before. Many long-time fans of dungeons and dragons even went so far as to claim that it was not the same game. Indeed, the designers showed little restraint when building the new system, and much of what they designed completely changed the way the game was played. However, their intention was not to change the game just for the sake of change. They wanted to create a better game, and many of the changes did just that. In this article I will call out the biggest, best changes 4e made to the long and storied life of the dungeons and dragons game, in hopes that it will spark discussion about what we have learned from this edition and where our game is going in the future.
Health and Death – or Bloodied, death saves, healing surges, and second wind
This is a big topic, and it all directly relates to hit points, the magical number of points a monster or character can take before being knocked out. Hit points are one of the best recognized design elements of the dungeons and dragons game. They have been around since the beginning, mostly unchanged. Characters start with few, and gain more and more as they level up. While a dagger thrust might slay a new character, at high level a dragons fiery breath may merely be a mild irritant.
Not much has changed fundamentally with the way hit points work, other than healing surges, which I discuss later on. What has changed is a codification of the status of what losing hit points means. The “Bloodied” state, for example, marks a character or monster reaching the half-way point of their respective hit points. This simple term is a great way to give players clues about the state of the monsters they are fighting, and even helps them realize when their character, or an ally, is becoming dangerously injured. Narratively speaking, when a character bloodies a monster, this is a good time to describe getting a good hit in, literally causing the monster to bleed. It is a visceral word, self-explanatory, and incredibly useful from a descriptive angle.
However, the bloodied mechanic goes far beyond that, with certain powers, class and monster abilities tied to the bloodied state. Often a character or monster will transform into something else when bloodied. For example the shifter character race gets a bonus to damage and regeneration when bloodied. Many of the best solo monsters in the game transform when bloodied, or get a new power, or in the case of dragons, a big power such as their breath weapon immediately recharges and they use it.
Throughout the history of dungeons and dragons, character death has been an area of controversy. The earliest games were known for their ability to kill off reams of characters, and death could come from any direction, at any time, and it was easy to kill off a character with one lousy roll. Sometimes no roll was required, for example if you are playing an older edition of the game, do not stick your character’s head into a globe of disintegration. As the game has advanced, it has trended away from auto-death, and the new dying mechanic of 4th edition fits right in line with that ethos. While unconscious at negative hit points, a character makes a “death save” every turn, which determines whether the character slips closer to death, maintains status quo, or miraculously comes around.
This is a big change. Now the player gets to keep playing, even while knocked out, by rolling death saves. Granted a single die roll each turn is not much, but it keeps the player in charge of their character’s destiny. And if they should roll a (modified) 20, then they have mastered their mortality and pulled themselves back from the brink. It is a simple solution that goes a long way towards making character death less likely, and brings more interaction to the player.
The dying rules give non-magical healing into the hands of every character. No longer is a healer necessary to help the fallen. With the creation of the “Second wind” rule, for the first time in the game’s history, every single class can self-heal, and with a simple skill check, they can even help the helpless heal themselves. This is a sea change, and the crux of the games refined healing. Healing is no longer the sole provenance of the divine classes, and this comes through in so many ways, like through the use of healing surges.
For thirty years, we have argued over the representation of hit points. Are they pure physical stamina? Are they a record of wounds? Does it include morale, fatigue, and other more “ephemeral” traits of combatants? To me, hit points are all of these things and more. They are an indefinable numerical value that represents a creature’s ability to survive. Healing surges, on the other hand are far harder to define. Every character has a set number of these, and in theory they represent many of the same characteristics as hit points: injury, exhaustion, morale, but surges also represent a basic “daily stamina” beyond which, the character becomes ineffective.
For an example of how healing surges can be hard to integrate into a narrative, imagine a character with ten healing surges per day. If he quaffs 10 healing potions (which each consume a healing surge to drink) then the next potion he consumes will have no effect. Why? Because he is out of healing surges to “power” potions and other types of healing in the game. In that way, healing surges are more important than raw hit points, since there are many ways to regain lost hit points, but very few ways to continue adventuring when the healing surges run out. It is a strange rule, but combined with the way hit points work in the game, it allows for a much wider variety of healing.
Fourth edition characters are more resilient than past editions, and death is more avoidable than ever with the new rules for self-healing and non-magical healing. Where once clerics were heal-bots, no more. Now characters can take care of their own healing, and clerics cast their heals as minor or free actions, so they can bring it to the enemy like all the good strikers do.
Incidentally, the main reasons for healing surges and second winds has to do with “the five minute adventuring day” in which a party expends their resources in the first encounter of the day, then decides to rest until they recover. With surges, characters between encounters can heal up to full and carry on. Limiting the number of healing surges means that this won’t work indefinitely, and a character cannot quaff healing potion after healing potion and expect to continue on indefinitely.
Rolling a d20 and needing a ten or above is a genius idea. Subconsciously it was already a part of the game. Rolling a ten or above is a natural breaking point with the d20 (above ten actually, but here the game sides with the players) and many tables throughout all editions have had the results of whatever is being rolled for improve from a detriment to a boon whence crossing the halfway mark. The fact that the game designers held themselves back from introducing a slew of modifiers to this innately simple method – though there are a seldom few, such as the Raven Cloak, the mechanic is kept pure.
Epic Set Piece Encounter Design
The most noticeable differences with fourth edition take place within the sphere of the richly detailed combat encounters. Almost like a game unto themselves, the encounters are designed to be full-featured set pieces, which combine terrain, enemies, and traps and hazards to make compelling scenes of epic conquest. Third edition went a long way towards giving an added level of tactics to the battlefields, but 4e took the tatical battle to whole new levels. Characters are given powers and abilities that allow them to behave like cinematic super heroes. The wide array of monsters, traps, hazards, and terrain features give each battlefield the potential for greatness. Multiple victory conditions are poossible, and every battle is unique. There are no “filler” fights.
This complexity comes at a price, however, and the game slows down when it has to process the various elements at work with and against each other. While encounter design is easier than ever thanks to the great game balance, choosing compatible game elements to get the most out of the game can add time to encounter creation, as well. This is offset by the fact that every battle can be a unique, exciting, memorable event.
Since its inception, the idea of the skill challenge has garnered more attention than any of the other “new elements” of fourth edition game design. A series of articles in Dragon Magazine built upon the basic rules, and multiple websites began creating publicly available skill challenges. The discussions over how to properly run a skill challenge filled message boards, and still do. In the end, each group finds a way to incorporate – or not – skill challenges into the game in their own unique way. That is one of the things that makes them so great.
We were in the middle of our last 3rd edition game when 4e came out, and even before I owned any of the 4e books, I was finding ways to incorporate skill challenges into the campaign. I push role playing as much as possible, and for us, skill challenges are free flowing encounters where we go around the table and each person describes what want to do, then we pick skills and roll it out. For other people it is a quick dice-fest that ends in miniatures with victory or defeat.
Minions! And soloes and elites too I guess
Encounter design could never be so epic, nor so easy and fun to design and run, were it not for the wide variety of enemy foes and the way the game breaks enemies into different types. The greatest example of this is the minion, a lowly 1 hp creature, that lives literally to provide cannon fodder for the bigger badder bad guys to hurl before the heroes of the story. Like names storm troopers, their singular existence is to be mowed down in great quantity – and the theatrics of their demise are a great source of inspirational game mechanics. Elites and soloes to are excellent types of monsters. No longer is there just one type of orc or goblin, for example, but now there are goblin hurlers and orc savages, barbarians, and berzerkers.
Besides the type, they have roles, much like player characters. Monsters coul be lurkers, soldiers, brutes, etc. The roles help differentiate the various monsters even more, giving groups of monsters even more variety, ande providing for even more dynamic battles. Now the enemies come in many types and danger levels, not always obvious at first glance.
Vast array of race and class choices
The sheer number of race and class options available in the game is staggering, and what is especially nopticeable is the wide variety of unique, archetypal possibilities exist. With several years of expansions, the game designers have continued to push the limits of what is possible, both with classes, like the recent vampire from Heroes of Shadow, to races like the Pixie and Satyr introduced in Heroes of the Feywild. This is achieved through the balance that runs through the game, from encounter design to class and race choice.
One area where balance greatly enhances gameplay is in the area of encounter building. Balance is the key to successful encounter building, and in a game where almost any class is possible, they each maintain a certain level that generally meets its goal of being neither better nor worse than any other class option. This is good for action at the table, since in theory every character will contribute an equal amount, and it is also good before the game and behind the screen. It is impossible to account for all character ability combinations, but with balance, the game mechanics make it easier to approximate that fine line.
Love ‘em of hate ‘em, powers were the big game changers of fourth edition. They changed the game, and besides issues of balance requiring that every class had access to its own equal in size and strength set of powers. Fighters had stances and special attacks, rogues had tricks, wizards had spells, and they are all spelled out on handy cards. It is an innovative way to make the character accessible to the player, and the concept has merit – both mechanically, by putting numbers to potential actions, and flavorfully, by having a unique “thing” happen when a power is used. As the game matured, innovative use of powers have contributed to newer character classes, some of whom use basic attacks, or have auras instead of more traditional powers. Psionic power points are another alternate system.
The game dungeons and dragons seems to grow all on its own through the years, especially now that the internet has helped to bring together the countless groups of gamers across the world. Now more than ever, do people have access to role playing games. The worlds favorite role playing game will continue to grow, both organically by the millions who play some version of it, and through the hands of the owner and publisher of the license. There are great things to love about the current version of dungeons and dragons, and much to learn about how these great ideas can help the future versions of the game.