Aw yeah, starting this puppy off with a bang.

A lot of people have some very strong opinions about D&D 4e. What I've come to realize over the last several years is that most of these opinions come from people who haven't even played the game. Naturally, as an opinionated young mind on the internet, this really rustles my jimmies. So, I'm going to do as much as I can to dispel some misconceptions about the game, maybe assuage some of people's fears about it, and in general get the whiners to shut the frak up for two seconds.

First, the biggest complaint I ever hear about D&D 4e...


"It's just an MMORPG with dice."
Yeah. I hear this one all the friggin' time. At a quick glance, if someone who is used to playing a more abstract game like D&D 3.5e or anything from White Wolf looked at 4e's setup, character sheets, or whatever else, it would be really easy to just brand it a video game and back off. 4e has both player and monster classes that roughly equate to the standard "tank, DPS, healer" triad, player and monster abilities function on cooldowns and are segmented into easily-accessed "powers," and it feels like the skill system is glossed over in the main book. A full chapter on combat, with only a few pages on "skill challenges."

What the hell, Wizards of the Coast?! Why did you take out all of our social and story potential?! Where's the freeform chaos that was so endemic of 3.5e?!

Well, for starters, about half of what I said above was utter bollocks. Have you played an MMORPG? When was the last time you played one that measured distances in "squares," used a turn-based system, and zero PvP balance? With so many class advancement, race, and character advancement choices that you needed an archive of research material to make an educated decision at every single level? For those of you who play MUDs, I guess this would be standard, but sadly MUDs are not as mainstream as they probably should be.

Modern MMO players want simple, concise lists of classes, abilities, and gear so they can make easy judgments between what works with what, what conflicts with what, and what each stat does. Everything needs to be uniform. Instead, what 4e D&D offers us is a whole boatload of sourcebooks and splatbooks introducing exotic character types and fluffy abilities that are patently useless mechanically but add to character story. There are unique mechanics appearing in one book that have nothing to do with any of the others, and things that are noticeably imbalanced at launch that have stayed that way through the whole lifespan of the game.

This may sound reminiscent of something familiar to the gamers amongst you. It's almost identical to 3.5e D&D.


"It's too combat-focused."

This is another common one. And by "common" I mean "I am sick of hearing it." The claim is that due to skill challenges being glossed over in the player's handbook and skill growth being standardized along with character growth, the game is all focused on combat. And, indeed, there is a great deal more focus put on combat in the 4e PHB than there is on skill use. A full chapter on combat! Meanwhile, skills are given a much smaller chapter and-

And you already know what I'm about to say. Yeah, this is also a load of crap. In the 4e PHB, skills are discussed on pages 176-189. About 15 pages of information dedicated to putting a number with a die roll and telling whether or not it worked. Meanwhile, combat and all relevant combat-esque information, such as movement, vision, and conditions, are discussed on pages 264-295. That's about 30 pages of information dedicated to the high school calculus test that is D&D combat. Did your grapple work? When do you get an attack of opportunity? What the hell does sickened do, anyway? How long does it take four people with loaded horses moving across unstable terrain to move twenty miles without getting tired? Excepting opportunity, all of those things are totally usable in other situations. Grabbing your falling friend, or drinking too much and suffering the ill effects the next morning.

In the 3.5e PHB, skills were allotted about 25 pages of information, while combat and adventuring rules put together got about 35. Not a lot has changed.

Like in 3.x D&D, Vampire: The Masquerade, Champions, GURPS, or whatever your brand of RPG is, D&D 4e spends its pages discussing -mechanics-. How to make X work using dice and numbers. And just like all of those other games, the onus remains on the DM and the players to tell the story. Numbers have no place in storytelling; it comes from the mind, and the heart. It takes work, and writing, and drama, and a little bit of willingness to play pretend for a few hours. There is nowhere in either 3.5e or 4e that it tells you not to tell an amazing story using the numbers and feats and mechanics listed between the covers. All it tells you is that you have to do that on your own. The story is the group's responsibility, the mechanics are for the book.


With two big complaints out of the about I move onto something bright and shiney and super fun? Sure, I've spent six paragraphs telling people what's not wrong with it. How about I get into what's right?

The game is actually balanced.

...Sorta. It's a damn sight more balanced that most games on the market at least, and especially more than any other D&D title to date, including Pathfinder there I said it. While WotC did a ton of controversial things with 4e, one thing that most people who play the game can agree on is that it's at least more balanced between players than previous incarnations. WotC is bad at math, but they're at least trying, which is more than I can say for some game developers.


Why is balance important? And why is 4e better than 3.x in that regard? Well, let's start with the big one. Spellcasters have had a nasty reputation among D&D fans ever since 3.x came out. They could do anything and everything that the rest of the party could, only better, faster, and often while singing a jaunty tune. This doesn't seem like a problem to most players, because you either pick a mage and rock out at mid level, or you pick a warrior and smash face at low level. Your DM can sort out the rest, right? Well...the pressure on the DM is to create a story and fun, immersive situations for your party. If you're having to fight against a system to make things fun for everyone instead of that system working with you, there's a problem. The DM's job is that much harder.

And lemme tell ya, 3.x was just lousy with gameplay imbalances. Anyone with the ability to rearrange the basic laws of the universe to suit their will tended to violently overtake the simple face-smashers by about 5th level, which was not at all an uncommon place for several games to start. 4e fixed this by giving everyone the same power scaling via a mechanic conveniently called "powers." Combining the daily spells of a wizard with the encounter "maneuvers" that they experimented with in the 3.5e splat "Tome Of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords" (which I will discuss in a later post, I love it that much), they created a uniform standard upon which all classes could be compared. A fighter and a paladin, both tanky things on the frontlines, both had abilities that allowed them to protect their allies, survive attacks, and position enemies. They both used the same system to accomplish this, too, with at-will/encounter/daily powers of increasing power as they leveled.

4e is a shining beacon of game balance in cooperative tabletop RPG. There are still outlier classes and abilities that have confounded the game, but nowhere near the massive flummox that was 3.x or (Lolth forbid) AD&D. It allows the players and the DM both to stop worrying about one person overtaking the rest of the group, or someone falling behind because they picked the wrong class eighteen weeks ago and now they're useless.


Well, how about another one? Everyone loves calling 4e a video game, and I've already torn that to shreds. What is it? What kind of player would like playing it? I would like to posit the theory that...

D&D 4e is a tactical fantasy wargame.

Oh-HOOOH, are those eyes that I hear bulging? Wargaming sounds pretty different from D&D, after all. In a typical wargame, it's two players controlling armies or squads or something of high numbers, throwing them against each other with a hint of strategy and a ton of luck with the dice. But those of you who are either really old or RPG buffs like me will remember that D&D itself began as an adaptation of a wargame called Chainmail. In fact, it's maintained several of the mainstays of wargames through its entire run. Health and armor, accuracy and damage as separate stats, with die rolls and luck forming a key portion of the gameplay.

We certainly did move away from it during the 3.x era, and became something entirely new. Something incredible. 3.x D&D was renowned for being so damn versatile that you could do whatever you wanted with it. Half-ogre dragonblooded shaman with psionic powers? Done. Githyanki sky pirate with robot henchmen who terrorized people with demonic magic? Done. Metallic ascended green metal giant who formed a sword from his own body? Done. The staggering versatility with splatbooks and sourcebooks and internet content was one of the hallmarks of 3.5e that set it apart from AD&D. It wasn't a new concept, but it was new to D&D, and that was the important part.

At its core, though, it remained a wargame. Throwing dice to hit your enemy's armor, grabbing a spell from a small list and hoping it turned the could be played a hundred thousand different ways, but the rules spent much more time on tactical combat than on storytelling. The magical soul of D&D lies in picking up your d20 when the demon king is upon you and rolling, only for your heart to leap to your throat when you roll that natural 20 and shove your sword through his throat. And that, my friends, 4e does quite well.

4e is much more like a wargame than 3.x, which did set some people off. But that doesn't mean it can't appeal to another crowd. Allow me to tell you a story, but first let me preface it.


4e is what you make it.

For a little over a year in college, I played with a group headed by a friend of Ayden's. He was a creative writing major, and was using the game and our group as the testing grounds for his world. It was generic fantasy (or so we thought) about a group of mercenaries (or so we thought) being sent out to investigate a mystery in a mildly dangerous area (or so we thought). Over time, it unfolded into this epic involving viking dwarves clashing with a corrupt human regime and brought in the god of time himself to right the wrongs of the impending apocalypse. Personal grudges were settled. Revelations were undergone. Deep, emotional plot twists were everywhere. I threw a bag of vampire dust in a guy's eyes and he came back to literally try to bite me in the ass later. Big, meaty hands were grown. And, in the end, after the most epic story I ever took part in, the heroes won out and their names were written down in legend.

But you can bet your Primary Sitting Apparatus we weren't done. We followed this up with another campaign in Korra style, several years in the future. The technology had advanced, and the races of the world had changed with it. The same world we had been in before had grown without us, and it was now an alien place of totalitarian regimes and racial segregation and weird science. Our wacky party of misfits visited the home of machine-men who were a breed apart from anything we had met before. Our half-dragon werewolf paladin and cyborg dwarf barbarian joined forces with our demon-descended Russian gypsy techno mage warlock and his buddy the shadow-tainted swordsman to save the world from racist emperors, weird science, and ancient conspiracies.

We also got to fly in an airship beside an army of dragons.

All of this was accomplished with the 4e rulebook with only minor modifications made to the fluff of what those rules told us. A warlord's shout buff became a priestess of the time god manipulating the future to her party's benefit. A light blast became a magitech gun shot filtering the raw stuff of the Ethereal Plane through the focus in the end of the gun. And we loved it. It was the best D&D experience I've ever had. It was brilliant, deep, and I can still remember every character in the party (even if I don't remember their names).

4e is, like every other RPG system, a blank slate. It's what you make of it. Please don't judge it for cooldowns and tank/deeps/healz.