This article was a long time coming. When I started playing 4th Edition, it was impossible that such blasphemy could ever sprout from my finger-tips. But as we get older, we get more jaded and cynical, and recently I began to acknowledge some tiny hair-line fractures running rampant through this, my favorite version of the world’s greatest role-playing game of all time. Herein I will attempt to clarify the points of the game that I find irritating, or in opposition to the fun the game is meant to bring about.
I should, however, be quick to point out that even with these perceived problems, I still have tons of fun playing the game, and have no intentions of abandoning 4th edition dungeons and dragons for any other game, or any previous edition. In fact, my intent is rather to help discern a path forward to make the 4th edition even better than it is now, by house-ruling my personal game, and also by reaching out to the wider audience to help influence the discussion about how the game designers should fly our flag-ship into the future.
Most of these ideas have flared up at some point during the interminable “edition wars” but the intent of this article is not to re-open old wounds, nor to cause fresh ones, but merely to express opinions cautiously formulated over the course of many years of gameplay – in hopes of fostering a better game. It is also important to note that the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is not alone in suffering from these and other imperfections, but that they are to be found in older editions of the game as well as in other games altogether. In other words, no game is perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make each game as good as it can be.
Combat takes too long
4th edition combat is brilliantly tactical, with movement, action, and sound and fury. It can invoke some of the most tense, dramatic combats of any edition, and it is an area where the game literally soars. The combat side of the game has all the strategy of a military wargame, coupled with infinite character customization, and brought into focus with great environmental effects and inspired monster design. This incredible treasure trove of features, however, is its own downfall. With so much happening, round after round, the fights tend to bog down, and it is normal to spend hours resolving a single battle.
That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and for many people a 2 hour battle is perfect. However, when playing with large groups, or with limited time, the lengthy battles directly reduce the amount of time for non-combat role playing and exploration that also make up a fulfilling session. Not every session needs to have equal time for each type of gameplay, but when a single combat takes up 50% or more of a single session, it makes moving the story along that much more difficult, and can cause the game to descend into a sort of semi-related string of combat sequences, like the dungeon delves that the game came out with in its infancy.
Incidentally, Dungeon Delve is one of my favorite 4e products. It is a highly formulaic book of short adventures, called delves, each of a set number of encounters, and each a perfectly encapsulated adventure, one for every level up to 30. The delves are excellent to use for all sorts of things, from random encounters, to a prep-free pick-up game. However, if the game were reduced to ONLY delves, without the rich stories, role-playing, exploration, and connection to an imagined living fantasy world, then it would lose much of what makes the game great. Therefore, combat taking too long is only a detriment, insofar as it reduces the amount of time for other important activities.
There is nothing wrong with dungeon delves, but the game has the potential to offer so much more. It is disheartening to have to rush through role-playing sequences, or hand-wave important yet time-consuming moments of game-play just to satisfy the need for enough combat time. It creates a false structure on a game that should be kept as open-ended as possible.
I have experimented with adjusting initiative order, adding timers, and even adjusting the monster’s stats to facilitate faster combat. There are plenty of things that can be done to shorten the lengths of combat, and much has been written about different techniques, even a few articles on the subject by myself. However, these are all work-arounds to an actual problem: combat needs to move swifter.
The main problem with combat length is built into the design of the game. With each character having three separate and distinct actions each round (not counting all the interrupts) the time it takes to plan and then execute those actions is a major cause of long combat. Standard, move and minor is too much, especially for those players who want to use up all three actions every time. Sometimes I long for the days of a single action per round, though it would surely destroy some of the unique fluidity of 4th edition combat.
Second on the list of why combat takes so long, is that characters have so many different options during a round of combat, including multiple standard actions to choose from, multiple move actions, and multiple minors. Each of these actions needs to be tactically studied in order for the character to perform optimally. While some may argue that a character should plan his actions when it is not his turn, the dynamic nature of combat means that a player must always be updating their plans as each enemy and ally acts.
The number of powers alone number 19-27 on average for a mid level character. Some can be used over and over, some once per encounter, and some once per day. On top of that, some are minor actions, most are standard actions, and many are move actions. A select few even combine more than one action type, or are free, non, interrupt, or otherwise triggered reactions. It is no wonder that there is little time to consider non-power actions, such as skill checks, or other “stunts” during a character’s turn.
Third on the list of why combat bogs down, is that monsters tend to be built for durability. In a recent session I almost laughed aloud when I saw a monster that my 15th level party was about to face. It had 460 hit points, and did 2d8+7 damage. This is incredible. It did an average of 15 points on a hit to a group of characters that had over 100 hp on average. So, if the monster hit the same character each round, in 6 rounds it MIGHT be able to knock him out, while with 460 hit points, the party striker, who does 40 points on an average hit, would have to smack the monster 12 times to score a kill. This is ridiculous, it is built for slog. I cut the hit points of the monster in half and had him do 4d8+7 damage, and he actually became a threat, and the battle ended in 45 minutes with two characters knocked unconscious yet the party victorious. It was a crude experiment – cutting monster hp in half and doubling damage output, but it made a big difference in making the battle shorter, more dangerous, and more intense.
It is my experience that this slowness becomes more acute as the party rises in level. Because of the geometric increase in stats, what was a small amount of slog to begin with, quickly grows to burdensome levels. Other than various work-arounds, I know of no way to solve this issue without losing some of the amazing dynamism that makes 4th edition combat so fun and engrossing. Dropping the minor action, and sticking with a 2 step move/standard is one way to make serious inroads into speeding up combat, and I might eventually try to house-rule something like this, but I expect an uproar from my players, and it would be difficult to implement anyway, since so much of the game depends on minor actions. My player who has a feat that allows his character to stand from prone as a minor will surely balk at this attempt to streamline. Not to mention the cursing, vowing, marking, and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves crowd.
There is so much to discuss in relation to why combat takes so much time and how it should be streamlined, but I fear a new edition would be released long before we exhausted all the causes and solutions. Combat is a complex system that has many inter-locking parts, and no solution is simple, but will require an overhaul of the entire system. It is possible to do it within the current rules framework. To give an example, when Wizards of the Coast re-vamped the monster stat block, they corralled all the various interrupts, free actions, and other atypical powers into a “triggered actions” heading. Doing this with character powers, and reducing the quantity, while improving the variety is key.
Character creation takes too long and requires too much hardware
This is the elephant in the room. No really, it is an actual elephant, sitting there in the corner, humming away, waiting for some one to sit down and interact. The elephant I speak of also goes by the name computer, and internet connection, and software that requires a monthly fee to use. I speak of the Online Character Builder, and I rage against the inability to make a competent, optimized character without it.
For years I have had a “no electronics at the table” rule (based on Luke’s Diner from Gilmour Girls) and while I realize that in this ever-modernizing world, technology is quickly replacing much of the paraphernalia once found around a gaming table, it still fills me with rage to think that I MUST have a computer, internet, and up to date Character Builder in order to play the game the way it is meant to be played.
And yes, it IS possible to build a character without the Character Builder, but let me ask you how you will go about choosing amongst the 2,300 feats spread out amongst over 100 sources, some of which, like the Dragon articles, are ONLY found online? It is impossible. Therefore to play the game as it is meant to be played costs money EVERY month, and that is just plain wrong. I understand a company’s need for profit, but forcing the customers to pay every month INDEFINITELY for the luxury of playing a table top game goes too far and if I were a suspicious man, I would suspect that some of the design decisions were based not on making the best game possible, but in making a game that requires a continuous software subscription. The sheer number of feats, and the fact that many elements of the game are only available electronically, supports this cynical theory. Also the fact that they replaced a perfectly working “offline” builder with a buggy, underwhelming online builder points to the company wanting to take the game “online.”
Let us turn from the dubious business practices of Wizards of the Coast for now, and switch gears to the idea that there are 2,300 possible feat choices. There are another few thousand powers to choose from. Scrolling through the feat lists is a mind-numbing experience, and choosing the one obvious good power amongst the dozen lesser ones becomes exasperating after the thousandth time. This may be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that there are too many redundant, useless, under-powered, over-powered, must-have, shan’t-take choices out there. One thing that springs to mind is the choice of powers, like pact powers of the warlock, that are clearly meant to be taken by the characters who have the applicable pact. Why make that a choice, since it is obvious? The issue is systemic, but fixable.
Powers and feats could be more like skills, where you choose each level between a select set, advancing as you go. Or like the special ability paths of many popular MMO’s. So, by choosing axe-master at first level you get +1 damage. Choosing to rank up at level 2 give access to Headsman’s chop, and so on. Gamma world 4e is another example, which uses cards for powers and treasure, and the character draws amongst his suite of cards during combat. Character building has become like a research project, where various combinations are tested against one another until an optimal outcome is achieved. It is time consuming, and can become boring to those of us lacking an accounting degree.
Still, in the end, it is that 5 bucks a month charge that really gets to me. My inner scrooge rebels at the notion. Ironically, with all the great features the subscription allows, such as the Dungeon and Dragon articles, and the Monster Builder (a truly great piece of work) I think the amount they charge is completely reasonable. I would pay anyway, but I don’t want to HAVE TO pay, it is a fine distinction.
The modifiers explode exponentially
One of the things that bothers me to know end is the steady march upwards of all the stats, scores and modifiers in nice orderly fashion. I have to scratch my head and ask, why? The reason is that characters need to feel like they are growing more powerful as they advance in level, so all the scores and bonuses grow to massive levels, but to exaggerate the point, if a level 1 door is a DC 10 to break down, and a level 2 door is DC 11, then nothing has been achieved, except to force math-challenged players to add ever-higher numbers together in order to beat ever higher challenges. What is hilarious to me, is the basic philosophy that whether level 1 or level 30, a character should usually hit on a 10 or higher on a d20. What this means is that you could basically ignore ALL the modifiers and hand wave hitting on 10 or better, thereby defeating all of the so-called “advancing” that the characters experienced as they gained levels! Sure, there should be some advancing of the stats, but only by making those stat increases matter, by being higher than the average, do they serve purpose, otherwise it becomes a meaningless treadmill.
The magic item system of D&D 4e fell victim to this tread-mill affect, whereby certain magic items were required by certain levels in order for characters to hit the math correctly as they advanced in level. The most absurd reflection of this mechanical meaninglessness was the advent of “Inherent bonuses” introduced into one of my favorite all time D&D products, the Dark Sun 4e Campaign Setting. Inherent bonuses give characters stat bonuses “just because” they are needed for the level advancement math to work out. To me, that is the height of bad rules design. Every plus, every stat bonus, ever modifier should be or symbolize an achievement, not an automatic gain based on game geometry. Otherwise it is just more meaningless, time-consuming finger and toe counting that serves no purpose.
An example of completely useless modifier inflation is the “add 1 every other level” that happens to most stats. Bonuses, and modifiers, including the to-hit roll, armor class, skill bonuses, and the list goes on. By level 30, a player is adding 15 to everything right off the bat. And you know what, all the monsters and traps and bad things are also adding +15, so it all works out. Needless accounting! Not only that, but it also means that a character sheet and its powers have to be printed anew every level, so that the auto stat increases are correctly shown. It is a vicious circle feeding on its own tail.
Another unsatisfactory bit of fallout from this practice of exploding modifiers is that the die roll becomes less and less important. By level 30, some attack rolls may have modifiers of +40 or more to a D20 die roll. When the die roll itself only accounts for up to 1/3 of the total, the game system is out of whack and randomness becomes lessened, drowned under the mountain of modifiers. The design philosophy of 4th edition seems to dampen the randomness of dice at every turn, and this is one more case of the dice roll being less important than the modifiers added to it.
This brings to mind a similar event that happened with another game I used to play. Although not an exact corollary, there are many similarities between what happened with 4th edition combat compared to what happened in my first MMORPG (online computer game) Star Wars Galaxies. After being out for a few years, the game released a massive over-haul that it called the Combat Upgrade. It actually happened in two phases, and the other phase may have been called the New Game Experience or vice-versa, but whatever the case, the basic combat system was completely changed to the point that the whole concept had to be re-learned. It went from being a game that had linear stats across the board, to a system that scaled depending on the character level. Previous to the upgrade, a group of low level characters could get together and kill a super-tough baddie, like a tusken raider or a rancor. Because together, they could inflict enough damage to kill a wildly over-powered creature with tenacity and skill. After the upgrade, tenacity and skill became worthless, because hitting and damaging became scaled based on the difference in level between the opposing parties, to the point that whenever an enemy fell outside the “sweet spot” of a few levels above or below, it would be either immune to attack, or instantly destroyed. Changed the game. For the worse.
There is no reason for this gamist design that does nothing other than to give the illusion of advancement, but is in reality merely a brinkmanship scaling of adversaries to no purpose.
Gamist Design Philosophy with little regard for Simulating Reality
Throughout my lengthy career playing the many editions of Dungeons and Dragons, some things have remained true. One, that rules arguments are inevitable, and two that even though the DM is always the final arbiter in a situation, or should be, it is up to him to describe how the rule mimics or reflects real life. This is crucial to the suspension of disbelief that allows us to live and play in our imaginations. In 4th edition, however, I have found that in more and more of these arguments, there is no hook of reality to hang the game mechanics from. Thus, after the game stops and a rule is sussed out, rather than having an epic image in our minds of what just happened, we are left scratching our heads, shrugging, and saying ok, well let’s move on. It is sometimes hard to describe in every day terms, what a game rule is trying to achieve.
To coin a popular turn of phrase, being a role-playing game, rather than a roll-playing game, there is a certain similarity to reality the game needs if the game is to allow players character’s existing and interacting in it in a logical manner. If the mundane things of the game do not hold up to the test of reality, then it makes it harder for the players to set aside their world-weary ways and to interact with the fantasy world as if it were real. In the most basic sense, things like gravity, the air we breathe, the properties of metal, wood, flesh, ice, etc. all need to conform to reality. When they don’t, people notice very quickly. It is like waking up to see two moons hovering in the night sky – some things in life are so common that we humans quickly detect when something is amiss. In a role playing game, this is bad, because it takes you out of the story.
There are so many examples in this game, and indeed in ALL games, that we would be left with no rules left at all if we wanted to make a perfect simulation, but that is not the trouble. It is the noticeable things, the argument-ending things that seem to be so wonky in this game. Here is one egregious example: in D&D 4e, there is very little difference in price between a suit of leather armor and a suit of full plate. Both are cheap enough to be bought and equipped by a brand new first level character. This, despite the fact that the armor weighs as much as 100 times the leather, and requires an entire industry to make, from the people who locate deposits of ore, to actually mine the metal, smelt it, then smith it to fit. As opposed to killing a deer, treating the hide, and sewing it into shape. My grandma could make a leather jerkin, but could she make steel greaves? I don’t think so. This is just one of many examples where the design philosophy made a complete break with simulationism, not even giving it a nod, and all for completely gamist reasons, by trying to be
Too Fair and Balanced
It is strange to think a game could be too fair and balanced, but as in many things in life, trying too hard to achieve certain ends is sure to dilute those ends. In this case, the original 4e Players Handbook was a testament to balance. Each character class was carefully weighed against the others to the point where each class started to look and feel like the others. Every class had 5 or 6 powers to choose from, and they all did a similar amount of damage, and they all had some class specific rider to each power. Wizards were good at hitting multiple targets, fighters were good at keeping the enemy focused on them, rangers were good at getting in some bonus damage on a hit – but overall, there was little feeling of difference between classes mechanically. Whether you were fighter, thief, cleric or wizard, you were punching up the enemy each round with your similar powers and doing nice homogenized lumps of damage, along with a nice bonus or two from the balanced condition chart.
Armor is another good way to look at the fairness and balance. Whether one is a steel clad warrior, or a silk robed wizard, the characters armor class rating is more than likely within a few points of each other. Sure, all classes have their strengths and weaknesses which cause the numbers to fluctuate by a point or two, but when the stats themselves start out around 20 and only go upwards from there with each level increase, a difference of a point or two is inconsequential, and therefore, equate to little difference in stats. This holds true across the board. The stat spread is very minimal. And what ends up happening is that less individualized strategy is required for each class, since they all tend to blend together. This is good and bad, but mostly bad.
We are not talking about ultra-optimized characters which can throw the whole scheme out of whack, and indeed I have heard that a melee-charging wizard can become one of the most devastating strikers in the game through wanton abuse of the system. To these I devote no time, but treat with scorn. I play the game for the fun, the stories that come out of it, and the difficult challenges that require brainpower and a little luck to survive. I do not play the game to “win” and I try to engender the same sense of sincerity to those whom with whom I play.
Recently I was reading through the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and in the section on character generation, the only method given was to roll 4d6 and take out the lowest die. There was no optimal ability score spread, just randomly generated ability scores that could produce anything from an inept weakling to an over-powered demi-god. Granted, the disadvantages of random character generation are well known, and like most gameplay problems solved by more rules, they limit the game by trying to reduce the amount of damage bad players and cheaters can do to the game. It is doomed to failure, and like many laws in our real world, these strict rules do more harm to the lawful players, and fail to stop the cheaters and bad players they are meant to curtail. In other words, if one of the players chronically rolls up over-powered characters with multiple 18’s, then that player will find a new way to abuse the system.
Unfortunately, I have found that by streamlining character creation to the point where players pick among standard arrays of ability point spreads, that this leads to cookie cutter characters with far less customizability than the rules would have you believe.
In D&D 4e there is often one best way to do things, one best power to use, one best class to take on certain roles, and it is codified to the extent that any other way of going about things is not just less than optimal, but absolutely inferior. One way this hurts individuality is that for each class there are one or two races that are just better. They have the ability scores to make a potent character, but any other race for that character archetype is sub-par, just as any other character for that race will be sub-par. There are plenty examples where certain races and classes have favored weapons, armors, skills, powers, ability scores and just about everything else, and to move outside this zone is to court disaster with under-powered characters, because modifiers are more important than dice rolling.
So there you have it, five things about the current version of my favorite game of all time, that make my life more difficult, and my game less satisfactory. In my next article, perhaps I will delve into the 500 things they got right. This is still my favorite version of the game, and even though I have started to see a few cracks, there is so much to love about the game. Most of these rough edges can be smoothed over by house-ruling and by careful planning.
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