Roll Perception Plus Awareness: 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, my column to introduce the world of modern roleplaying games to you. On this outing, I am going to tell you about the 800 pound Gorilla of roleplaying games–Dungeons and Dragons. In the specific, the latest “4th Edition”.

If you, gentle reader, have played any roleplaying game, I would lay odds that it was probably a version of Dungeons and Dragons. From its origins in the 1970’s as a fantasy adjunct to a wargame, and through the 1980’s, Dungeons and Dragons became the most recognized roleplaying game on the market. You may even remember the short lived cartoon series from the 80’s as well. You may have tried to forget the movie in the 1990’s. I suspect Jeremy Irons is still trying to.

To understand 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in context, let me begin with a little more history…


Through multiple editions, both Basic and Advanced, Dungeons and Dragons evolved and grew into and through the 90’s. This period of growth and experimentation led to a lot of unusual settings and ideas coming to the game.

Spelljammer, for instance, was Dungeons and Dragons In Space. Ravenloft brought the tropes and tools of Horror to Dungeons and Dragons. Planescape provided a canvas of infinite worlds, where philosophy was potentially as powerful a weapon as any sword or spell. One of the supplements for “basic” Dungeons and Dragons allowed the characters to ascend to godhood and become embroiled into a greater world of mythic conflicts and struggle.

And then, in 2000, the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out. The “basic” and “advanced” lines were merged into one game. More important than the numerous rule changes, however, was the concept of the Open Gaming License. Since its earliest days, the companies that owned Dungeons and Dragons, from TSR to Wizards of the Coast, actively discouraged the use of third-party products. I remember an editorial in an old issue of Dragon magazine cautioning players not to use products that were “compatible with Dungeons and Dragons” but instead to rely on those which carried TSR’s approval and were “approved for use with Dungeons and Dragons“.

All this changed with third edition, and the Open Gaming License. With the OGL, the basic mechanics of the D20 system, as the core mechanic of Dungeons and Dragons was now called, were open to anyone who wanted to create supplements and even new games entirely. This led to a culmination of creativity, as numerous roleplaying companies started producing supplements and entire games based on this system. These games varied widely in their diversity. For instance, Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms, created a steampunk infused fantasy world. Game designer Monte Cook came up with Arcana Unearthed, a fantasy world without the standard races of elves, dwarves and orcs, but instead featured humans living alongside giants, lion men, and dragon-descended races. Wizards of the Coast themselves came up with a Star Wars based roleplaying game.

By 2008, though, while there was great diversity in OGL supplements, Dungeons and Dragons itself had become overloaded with books and supplements of its own. For many players, part of the game itself was planning out a character’s evolution before a single dungeon was entered, plotting the best future for a character with all of the options provided in the plethora of rulebooks. Thus, like James Bond, Batman and Doctor Who, Wizards of the Coast decided for their 4th Edition, that an entire reboot was in order.

That reboot of Dungeons and Dragons was and remains controversial for many reasons. The changes to their Open Gaming License, making it far more restrictive and limited than the one for the D20 system, has made development of supplements for the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons far less common and widespread than under 3rd Edition. Many of the established game worlds of Dungeons and Dragons were radically altered, fundamentally changing the very landscape of the major adventuring worlds like the Forgotten Realms. However, it is the game mechanics and game philosophy that truly make 4th Edition a contentious reboot for the players.

Character classes like Fighters and Clerics are still there. There are still dungeons and there are still dragons. The same stats from the old days, Strength, Intelligence, Charisma, Constitution, Wisdom, and Dexterity are all there. There are dwarves and elves (although one branch of them are now called Eladrin).

On the other hand, there are new classes, like the Warlock, and the Warlord, and all of these classes are classified according to their “role”: Leader, Defender, Striker, and Controller. These roles are reminiscent of similar classifications in online games like World of Warcraft. There are new races too, most notably the humanoid dragons, Dragonborn.

Under earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons, there were concessions to a consistent and simulated reality. Descriptions of spells listed distances and areas in real world units, mages were limited in their spell use in a way that hearkens back to the novels of Jack Vance. For three editions, despite some rule changes, some things hearkening back to the early days of D&D were kept in place. A player from 1980 who time traveled to 2008 could pick up 3rd Edition D&D and with minimal effort, get to playing without too many of his assumptions about the game needing to be rethought.

4th Edition, however, is a different beast entirely. While previous editions of the game encouraged the use of maps and miniatures for the game, the game was certainly playable without them. Personally, I ran games as a Dungeon Master successfully without them for years. With 4th Edition, however, maps and miniatures have become mandatory. That lightning bolt that in earlier editions said went 60 feet? In 4th Edition, the distance is given in a generic map measurement called “squares”. Spell and abilities are all described in this way as well. Heck, your Eladrin rogue moves “6 squares” a round! You need maps and miniatures to effectively play the game as written.

Further making the world of Dungeons and Dragons less of a fantasy world and more of a board wargame with fantasy units is the nature of attacks and abilities. Those of you who played earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons probably remember that fighters did the heavy fighting, clerics healed, rogues backstabbed, and mages had a few spells–but were easy for the enemy to kill once they used up their magic missile or web spell. In the old cartoon, Presto was never stupid enough to let Venger’s minions get close to him if he could help it.

4th Edition changes this completely. Characters are far less fragile in this system than in previous ones, especially mages. It’s difficult to kill a character in 4th Edition, in what has to be a deliberate design decision. However, more striking is the change to how characters fight. Every character, be it a fighter or a mage, has a range of abilities that can be used every turn. They also have more potent ones that can be used exactly once during a fight, and everyone has an ability that can used once during a day. This means that there are spells that mages have that they can use every single round.

Even clerics, who aside from dealing with undead were mainly healing and support in earlier editions, now get cinematic attacks and spells of their own. Fighters special attacks are not called spells, but being cinematic-like attacks and abilities, they sure act like them. Some of the stranger powers of some character types, like Controllers, instead of dealing damage, actually move and control enemy units on the map, and sometimes they can even move other player characters as well, and give them the ability to attack an opponent.

Even more telling is that these powers are all roughly equal in ability. If the Ranger’s arrow strike ability does about the same damage and hits about as equally as my Cleric’s holy bolt, then what is the real difference in playing the two?

And to me, and to logic, the idea that ability can be used just once during a fight, but can be used again for the next fight, even if that next fight is 5 minutes later or a half day later, is just unbalanced and unrealistic. Even more telling, the game is designed to have characters find if not outright buy the magical items they want, as opposed to what the GM has them discover. Magic items, designed to be relatively rare and precious in earlier editions of the game, are in the Player’s Handbook with the costs.

SF Signal member and Functional Nerd Patrick Hester once made a point that many modern fantasy writers who have played Dungeons and Dragons show it in their writing in terms of realistic, restrained and balanced magic and magical items. In 4th Edition, the balance and restraint he remembers is gone, all in the name of making a dynamic tabletop game experience. To me, all this makes the figurine of my Dragonborn cleric less of a character of my own, in a world the GM and I are building together, and more of a piece on a board game that I happen to be controlling.

And that is my point. 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is, really, and paradoxically, now more of a tabletop tactical wargame than any of its earlier incarnations. Your character, your fellow party members are the good units, and the enemy creatures are the enemy units. The latest innovation to 4th Edition is another board game like concept called “Fortune Cards”. As the Wizards of the Coast website describes them: “These cards give characters fun, temporary benefits that feel different from the benefits gained from powers and feats, without adding undue complexity to the D&D game.” When my characters in my D&D campaign 20 years ago went up against a Blue Dragon in the desert, they neither expected nor would have wanted to have a deck of Fortune cards at hand before the combat. And I ran that combat without a map.

Don’t get me wrong, it can be lots of fun to play 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. You probably can find an Essentials game running in your friendly local game store running this week, if you are now curious to play. But, to me anyway, 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons feels and is seemingly designed to be a lot less like roleplaying than earlier editions of the game ever did. It feels like a beer and pretzels fantasy wargame. It takes a lot of work for a Game Master to bring a roleplaying experience to the game, when the game itself is so tilted toward being a tactical battle game. I know of GMs who have managed it, but know just as many or more who run 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons as a way to get friends together to go pound some Orcs, nothing more.

And now you know why 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is considered to be controversial and divisive, and many older D&D players do not play the latest edition.

There are companies still producing items under the OGL, but the mantle, as it were, of the D20 system in a Dungeons and Dragons like atmosphere has been taken up by a different company entirely. Next time, we’ll take a look at the game that tries to continue the traditions of the D20 system.

13 thoughts on “Roll Perception Plus Awareness: 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. Is 4th edition D&D really a means by which Wizards hopes to draw players into a buying cycle? By requiring maps and miniatures and now offering “Magic” cards it becomes a game where upgrades and new adventures must be bought rather than imagined by GM’s. The problem with D&D and other books driven RPG’s is once you have bought the main rule book or books a creative group of players can literally produce their own adventures. I believe this was the reason behind the release of the original OGL for d20 as Wizards hoped a wider offering of accessories may help its core rule book sales. The problem they caused however with the original OGL was they literally gave away the farm by allowing use of the core rules in new publications. This allowed for complete offshoot games with full rules texts which meant that buying core rulebooks from Wizards was no longer necessary. This of course defeated what I think their core strategy actually was, to sell more books. With 4th addition they have recreated their game world entirely by clever rule changes nullified the older system and cut themselves off from the d20 world. I also think that they may have created this more visual tactile game in response to the many computer driven RPG’s. This may have been driven by the possibly correct assumption that today’s gamers crave a more visual and tactile experience. After all in an online or video game RPG you don’t have to imagine the dragon or the orc hoard as they are cinematically rendered for you. Through the use of miniatures and tabletop maps D&D 4th has added some elements of the visually stimulating computer game to the D&D world while leaving the concept of interactive role playing at least partially intact. Perhaps 4th addition D&D is what you get when you try and appeal to, too wide of an audience.

    – J L Arnold Author of APOCalypse 2500 RPG http://www.apocalypse2500.com

  2. I think I last played Dungeons & Dragons sometime in the mid-to-late 80s. For a while, in the early 80s, I was rather raveonous about it. So it is fascinating to me to read about the changes to the game in the intervening decades.

    I tend to think in sports analogies (too much. perhaps), and your discussion on the changing balance of the game made me think of the balance between pitcher and hitter in baseball. For a long time, pitchers had the advantage. Then they lowered the pitching mound and ever since it has been hitters who’ve tended to have an advantage (to say nothing of steriods). I also never played with maps or figures and so that, coupled with the shifting balance and I don’t know that I’d enjoy the 4th edition as you describe it.

    But in any event, excellent article and discussion and I look forward to the next one.

  3. This is darned interesting. While I have never played any D&D, I have many friends who have and have very nearly been pulled in to trying it several times, to the point of sitting in observing some pretty long night’s worth of play. (the beer helped). Since I’ve moved to another state those players are far away but I still think about it from time to time and have wondered, with all the history, versions and publications, where on earth I would start if I wanted to get into a group. Certainly not with this new version, as I’d want the maximum thinking and the least board-war-blast ‘em type of activity.

    Are the old versions (and the rules and guides for them) even still available?

  4. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the mention. :) 

    Awesome post.  I’ve never done more than glance at the 4th edition stuff in the bookstores, admiring the cover art for the most part.

    My D&D experiences were in the late 80’s early 90’s and to be honest, I wanted my players to use/draw maps but they were never interested in doing it, which made me sad.

    What you describe sounds to me like an attempt to water it all down to try and bring in new, young players with short attention spans.  The RP stuff is thrown in as a token after-thought to the old school gamer, but really they want to diversify their player base beyond that small, RP gamer demo that sustained them for decades, but isn’t big enough to increase their business. They’re growing the brand by diluting it to appeal to people who wouldn’t ordinarily have given it a shot.

    …did SyFy buy Wizard’s of the Coast?

    *cough*

    ~P
    @atfmb

  5. While I think the majority of the article is clear, I think you overstate how dependant 4e is upon miniatures in comparison to earlier editions.  One can easily figure out the “real world” distances of movement by multiplying the “square” by 5 and come up with the number of feet.  Certainly, it is more map dependant than 2nd edition seemed to be, but I have had fewer “but I am actually behind the monster” arguments in 4e.  3.5 marked the real transition of the game into massive miniature promotion — one only need look to the rule book to see the shift.

     

    As for the GSL being more restrictive than the OGL.  True, if by that you mean that the OGL allowed for the complete reprinting of rulebooks minus specific IP — like character names — a loophole that was taken advantage of by companies like Mongoose under the OGL.  The GSL is actually very permissive with regard to what it allows, far more so than most people think.  The main difference is that Ryan Dancey was out in the market promoting the OGL and keeping people informed about how flexible the license was, while Hasbro as a license written in legalese that they spend no time explaining to 3rd party publishers.  The GSL is much less “user friendly,” and Hasbro isn’t going out of their way to help small publishers grow into big publishers – -as Dancy was — but the GSL is very open, a far cry from the Gygax days.

     

    Rules like the Skill Challenge System and the “how to do x” rules on page 42 of the 4e DMG make this game more roleplaying focused than any other version of D&D I have ever played.  My players are constantly experimenting with what they can do.  The influence of games like Burning Wheel and Feng Shui are readily visible in 4e.  The problem with  4e is that the early adventures, and current adventures, tend to be written in the “delve” format which is a miniatures tabletop boardgame style presentation.  I can assure you that my home games are not like that at all, and that if you were to come to an Encounters session that I run it would very much feel like role playing game and not a roll playing game.

  6. I’ve never been a great fan of D&D or the d20 system. But I believe the forth edition of this game is the best. Is more organized and focused. I don’t play D&D 4ed. per se, but Gamma World and I can say is dynamic, fun and easy to play (and play it without maps)

  7. For years, every Friday and Saturday, my friends and I would order a Domino’s pizza and play D&D. We were that cool. :) It’s been years since I’ve played, but I have been comtemplating a return. I write Fantasy, and nothing gets my creative juices flowing like a good dungeon crawl.

    From the looks of it, 4th Edition is not for me. If I want to be nailed to a table, why not use a PC game? I want to use my imagination. I also want my kids to use theirs when they are old enough to play.

    My ideal setup is a kitchen table with ~5 people around it. A stack of books in the middle, the DM at one end behind a screen and everyone else sitting with a load of their lucky dice, pens and paper.

    Maybe I’m just old.

  8. I, too, was playing during the mid-80’s and now run a 4e Eberron campaign after a 25 year lull. There are parts of me that miss the old days where you told the DM what you wanted to do and he told you what to roll. Now, we struggle with finding ways to use the powers to their best effect and do it in a timely manner so as to not drag the battle out.

    Last week, we were playing the scenario at the back of the campaign guide and my group totally went off the grid. In the encounter between enemy on floating disks and the air ship, they pulled out grappling hooks from there climbing rigs. I gave them old school ability checks, a total of three in all, with a pretty good DC and the dice went up in fire. All bad guys, except for two, were taken out with grappling hooks. Now, I could have raised the DC, but this just makes for good adventure stories.

    This was one of the more fun encounters, but I think it happened because we got away from the powers and feats. I’m almost to the point where I would like to find an old school set of rules (maybe go back to the original) and use the current campaign materials.

    In the end, the system is usable, but sometimes it just comes across as chunky.

  9. This article does conviently skip over the fact that D&D at its inception required the rules for Chainmail a table top wargame to play. The use of models or tactical representation with graph paper and bits of paer has always been required for easy play. 4e makes this once again overt.

     

    In the few games I’ve played of 4e the rules give more responsiblity and control to the players by taking away power from the GM and focuses the rules right down onto what Dungeons & Dragons is about: diving into dungeons, hacking stuff up, stealing treasure. There are other roleplaying systems that focus on providing rules more social or theme driven games. Dogs in the Vineyard, Sock: Social Science Fiction and Primetime Adventures all occur to me.

  10. Thank you all for your comments.

    4th Edition D&D is but the first game that I am going to introduce and discuss here. Nearly everyone has heard of D&D, and that’s why I picked it, first.  I did simplify its story somewhat to make this a blog post and not a master’s thesis on the subject. 

    In future columns, I will be discussing games very different than D&D,  including more social “Indie games” that many of you (except Will, perhaps, as an example), will likely have never heard of–but might find value in learning about. 

  11. One of my friends was a major proponant of D&D 4th ed! He told us how he thought the book was better written, and the combat system made more sense, he insisted that the feat system from 3.5 was stupid and the game was much better now you just picked powers, he said it may have some failiings as an actual RPG but the combat system was solid. He said stuff like this so many times that we actually allowed him to run a session (one of the worst sessions of anything I’ve ever played…), and eventually he insisted it was so good that a bunch of dicks like us would never be able to play it, so he retreated to the dark and dingy world of online RPG playing….

    2 months latter he revealed that everyone in his online group had quit after 3 sessions, having decided that, as it turns out, 4th edition wasn’t a good game, and the combat system was completely unbalanced without buying more books….

    Personally I think it’s all still in the 3.0 syndrome at the moment, and from what I can tell this whole D&D Essentials movement is effectively a reboot without having to reboot. (might actually be a playable game one day, but you have to wonder what the point is, I thought that 4th ed was going to be used in some computer games or something, but so far its that daggerfall dungeons game and thats it)

  12. I don’t see anywhere in the article that you actually tried playing. I think that a review a game system should be at least given a good run before going to print otherwise it comes across as mostly hearsay.

    I realize this article was written awhile back, but I sure hope that you have given D&D 4th edition a try by now.

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