Saturday, April 16, 2011

D&D 4E: What Works, What Fails?

From the very beginning, this blog has tried to answer what can be improved about D&D 4E. For this reason, I couldn't resist participating when I saw the following call for feedback from the game devs:

Hey Folks;

It’s agonizing self-appraisal time in the D&D reeducation camp. Mike Mearls has asked for a list of issues that players see as problems with 4E. No group of people is better equipped to compile that list than all of you.

We’re only interested in the D&D rules right now—what’s broken, what’s underpowered? What change would get you to play an unloved class or race, or to pick a feat or power that no one uses? Whose damage is too low, whose basic attack is rubbish, which secondary effect doesn’t work as written? Let’s collect them all here, where they’ll be easy to find and compile.


(Steve is Steve Winter, editor of Dungeon and Dragon) The discussion is taking place in this thread in the official forums, and I'd encourage any readers to chime in. If you are interested in making D&D a better game, this looks like the perfect place to go. Here's what I had to say on the matter:

What works

The core combat system: It's still the best tactical board game I've played. It deserves to be ported to a pure squad battle game (but without collectible miniatures nonsense, please), and with enough simplification, it might even work for warhammer-style massive battles. It may be a bit on the slow side, but it's pure fun.

The class system, even outside of the At-will/Encounter/Daily template: One of the things I loved the most about 4E from the begining was how all characters played with the same rules, ending the historic fighter/wizard asymmetry. However, I'm glad that you experimented with classes that break this mold (first psionics, and more recently the much maligned Essentials), as they have brought fresh ideas, more variety, and great options for player who can't (or don't want to) deal with the default level of complexity. Just be aware that there are still many of us who love the traditional, more complex style.

Errata: I know there is people who think otherwise, but I'm really happy with the game errata. I may be biased because I use the online Compendium and Character Builder, which make dealing with rule updates really easy. Nevertheless, there have been many changes, most of them much needed, and I think that most of them have been a success. The game may still be far from perfect, and it might have been preferable not to need that errata in the first place, but I'm glad it has received this kind of support.

New monsters: Everything that has come since Monster Manual 3 has been great, and many historic flaws in the monster system are a thing of the past. Monster roles are balanced and interesting, new solos are all kinds of awesome, and minions, though still too fragile, have also experienced some great improvements. The downside is, I like this new math so much, that I can't stand looking at old school monsters. I'd really like to see the creatures in MM1, MM2 and all older adventures updated, even if I had to pay for it. Right now, I'm converting monster stats to the new standard when I DM, but that takes a LOT of work (though a functional Monster Builder would help!)

Dragon and Dungeon editing: Yep, the new material is definitely getting better. The errata forums hardly get any traffic these days! I do not approve of the drastic reduction of content (I want more stuff!), but I have to admit that I'm enjoying the few articles I get to read.

What doesn't work

Magic Item rarity: While I do like the rarity rules, they fall apart without a decent amount of common and rare items. This shouldn't have been introduced without a major errata, or a new item book.

Magic Item selection: Magic items also suffer from the fact that the current selection of items in the game is, well, terrible. There are too many items, and most of them are thoroughly uninteresting ("once per day, do something insignificant"), with a few that are absurdly good. There is no consistent idea about what the power level should be, nor is there a clear distinction between slots - what's the difference between an Arms item, a Waist item or a Head item? I honestly can't tell, because abilituies for each slot are all over the place. Having a separate item category for each type of implement was also an error, as it contributes to option bloat, and I think these would work much better with a generic "implement" slot, similar to magic weapons.

Psionic classes past heroic: I am very satisfied with the performance of psionics at heroic levels, but the power point scaling is really screwed up. I suspect that higher level augments were made more costly to prevent characters from spamming their strongest augment, but poor number adjustment has lead to the opposite - paragon and epic augments are ridiculously overcosted. I have been toying around with paragon augments costing 3 power points and epic ones 4, and the power point pool varying with the level of your at-wills (like hybrid psionics currently work), and I think this would solve most of these issues.

Skill scaling: Ok, this is not entirely accurate - the last revision of the skill DC table has been a great job, and it works surprisingly well. But I still think it was a failure not to have skill bonuses and DCs progress at the same rate as attack and defense bonuses (+1/level). What's the point of having a consistent math progression if some subsystems in the game just ignore it for no apparent reason?

Initiative scaling: Like skill scaling, I feel this really should have progressed at a rate of +1/level.

Tertiary abilities in general: Although the two previous points are the main offenders, anything that depends on ability modifiers in the game is subject to similar problems - the gap between characters who use a primary ability and those who don't is far too large. This affects basic attacks, AC for certain builds, and defenses, among other things. I have found that setting a minimum cap on these ability modifiers, and having the cap scale with character level, makes the game math much more consistent, and building characters far more forgiving. For reference, I use minimum bonuses of +1 per 5 levels (i.e. the same progression as enhancenemnt bonuses).


  1. I am a big fan of your blog and would love it if I could pm you about this instead of just posting it, but would it be cool if I mentioned my blog here? If not feel free to delete this.

    If you have time I'd appreciate it if you took a look. I write mostly dm and player advice for keeping games running and about aspects of games that hurt/help fun.

  2. Awp, that's it, I've started a trend of people launching their blogs by pimping it on Perico's Square-Fireballs. WHAT HATH SCIENCE WROUGHT?

    Basically agree with the premises, though again, I'd add solo monsters to the list of things that don't work (and as much as I love them, probably hybrids as well)

  3. Ok, I have added a couple of new links to my list of recommended sites. Enjoy! :)

  4. Couldn't agree more. I love the experimentation with the class system; the Essentials classes just seem so much more alive and invested in the game world than the originals, though I wouldn't like to see them replaced either.

    I think the biggest problem with the game you haven't mentioned here. I think that the game should be designed with groups of all sizes in mind. Sure, I can round up five others together to play, but sometimes I want to play with just two others without having to take control of two characters. There should be ways to make it still interesting and balanced when there are less or more players than the average of five.

  5. I'm curious about this. Where do you feel that the game fails, when varying group size? My personal experience is with a very free-form campaign, with party sizes often varying between 4 and 6, and occasionally dabbling into 3- or 7-man games. And I always found the method of adding or removing monsters to fit pretty well. Admittedly, our most reliable players are in charge of the leaders and defenders, meaning that we very rarely had to play without one of those roles, which is probably one of the greatest problems when playing with 3-man parties.