I Want to Talk About 4e

So, so much. I miss it. I love it. I bought two books for 4e this past weekend, solely to possess them–I also cancelled my recurring subscription to DnD Insider, because it was far more work finding the 4e tools than I was comfortable with.

4e feels like it’s completely vanished, and that breaks my heart. I loved it. I love it.

Tell me this bores you.

A friend just texted me to ask if I had a 3.5 handbook handy–which I did not, because the SRD is a thing that exists and it does what you need–because one of his friends is starting a new campaign primarily due to having hated 4e and thus avoiding 5th.

I’ve been playing Gamma World with my wife, and on New Year’s Eve played with my regular 5e Expeditions (Encounters, actually!) group. Second winds! Variable ability scores used on attacks! These things exist, in some form, in 5th. But the resilience of the characters, the variety of powers, the explosiveness of combat…these things were lost in the mists of 4e. Maybe they’ll come back, of course. Maybe there’ll be supplement upon supplement until 5th is the new badass edition. Shit’s not here yet, though.

This edition has the least essential Dungeon Master’s Guide I’ve ever purchased, and I have all of them, one way or another. I bought it, and I skimmed it, but I haven’t really read it–and I’ve never done that. When I started out gaming, back twenty years or so, I had no DMG. I had a 2e Player’s Handbook, and a 1e Monstrous Manual (and no one to point this out). I sat down with the PHB and a couple hours later wrote my first race–aquatic men, bonus to Con, penalty to Cha and maybe Str? By the time I got my DMG I’d run several adventures, throwing out xp like candy for killing goblins. The DMG changed everything; suddenly I had mechanical systems I could use to comprehensively create monsters! Races and classes followed, until by the end of high school my campaign was just shy of 100% custom or web-sourced.

I fought against 3rd when it first hit, particularly because of the incredibly low xp ceiling that a challenge-rating-derived system provided. Eventually we dabbled, though, and I came to appreciate the incredible flexibility of character building that open multiclassing allowed for. The increased punch of characters was also exciting, particularly casters getting useful, damaging cantrips. Plus, a comprehensive consolidation of ability score tables, making everything matter, and pulling skills into it…by the time I’d spent a couple years in 3.x it was an incredible too for telling stories.

Then 4e dropped, and immediately I was into it. There was no pause, there was no fight, there was no conflict. Obviously, these helped. Coming into the game the same day I started at Barnes and Noble, which was also the first employee discount day I had with that company, was clutch as well; all three core books (which dropped simultaneously, rather than the 5e staggered system) was clutch. I came back, with the books, and jumped into a game with my roommate and our tertiary not-roommate who was essentially a roommate once all the love triangle stuff was resolved; that’s a long story.

I played the shit out of 4th. I ran a character from a weekend or two after the edition dropped until sometime in graduate school; years of my life walking that asshole of a dwarf into the middle of one melee after another, all so he could slam people around with his Thunderwave. He wasn’t my first character–think, all told, he was my fourth after Galdan (not Gal’Dan, a different iteration of that concept) the dragonborn ranger, Mesh’Aktur the divinely-inspired Sumerian priest (actually a Warlord), and a gnoll Warlord/Warlock I used in an interpretation of Diablo 2 someone was running. All of this was on Myth-Weavers, along with a game where I played a party of four characters–all gnolls, because I love gnolls–in an arena-style deathmatch. There was another arena game, where I ran a bugbear rogue and straight assassinated a dude in round one, then never got to a round two that I can recall. There was a lot, is what I’m saying. A Lankhmar game, where I ran another gnoll, this time a Warlock multiclassed into Fighter so that he could best express the blessing of Yng, the fertility goddess who infested his entire body with her healing tendrils.

All of that…all of it…happened in the first couple of months. Games died, like they tend to in a play-by-post. But I was hooked before I did anything crazy. Before I created crazier builds, re-upped classic characters, built the man known as Napan Bhartu and cleaved a fiery swathe through the River Kingdoms with his common-mangling ways. Each new release for 4e, plus the stuff coming out constantly on Insider, gave me new grist for the creative mill. It got me through long-distance years with my then-girlfriend/now-wife (Happy Birthday Sweetie!), plus same-town rough times. Plus, you know, two years of gradschool in New Mexico and Kansas, respectively.

This large picture is worth being a large picture.

After the heady days of 4e…despite seeing this (to me) inexplicable OSR resurgence built around hating having survivable characters with lots of combat options–there’s spin there, but pants knows I’m entitled some spin at this point…the current iteration of 5th breaks my heart. Earlier versions felt more vital, and more distinct, but the actual system I’m currently running is tiresome and tedious. I’ve been re-listening to the podcasts where Penny Arcade built 5th characters, prior to actual release by a solid chunk of months, and hearing the justifications for the changes versus what I’ve seen on the table creates some real dissonance. Characters are so frail now, and “short” rests take so long, that as DM I can’t really hand them to my players in most scenarios. I’ve managed to avoid any sort of player wipe for something like five months (and it feels longer) of weekly play, despite a party where the tank has a Con of 10 and is also a monk. But holy shit is it demanding. I’ve had to step away from so many interesting scenarios, and fudge things in a gentle way…by comparison, the last 4e campaign I ran, built from the excellent Fell’s Five comic series adventures, started with an intense interrogation of a dwarf at a bar (the party’s Monk, played by a Greek buddy of mine who decided to make him thoroughly Stoic and melancholy but rolled like a champ), then led to everyone falling into a writhing pit of zombie flesh. It started with a 14, 20-odd body fight. Then there was the battle in the Lord’s chambers. Then things got serious because they’d learned how to play their characters. Eventually they were leading a caravan of prostitutes (male, female, many races) to a stronghold in the wilderness that they built up to withstand a multi-day siege.

Folks complained that 4e took all the roleplaying out of the game, replacing it with that shoddy pun folks employ, and a lot of ire was placed on Skill Challenges. I used Skill Challenges the way they were meant to be employed…the Monk gave a super-fatalistic sermon with verve and passion, and suddenly men gripped their spears tighter and women pulled daggers from their skirts. Someone botched his wilderness roll and was placed 10 squares out of position when the fighting started.

4e gave me unprecedented tools, and had a system of almost crippling elegance. I’m not even touching on how hybrid classes essentially peeled the chassis back and let you get at the engine of the game.

But I will, over time. Because instead of counting sleep, I enumerate the joys of 4e. That’s not going to stop, so it should go here.

5 thoughts on “I Want to Talk About 4e

  1. I have a feeling we missed our chance at setting up a sort of Siskel & Ebert-style game review podcast. (Maybe it’s not too late.) But I have to say I’m constantly amused and bemused by how we can have tons of respect for each others’ taste and creative vision and yet be so very, VERY diametrically-opposed when it comes to stuff like this.

    (That cover of the PHBII is yawn-inducing. I LOVE the 5e DMG. I think fragile characters are 1,000 times more interesting than out-of-the-box epic heroes. [Although I’m not as hardcore about it as some OSR die-hards.] I like the 4e-isms that got into 5e, but I hope that’s the limit of them and they go no further. I love that 5e is designed to be malleable; don’t like the 1-hour short rest? Make it 15 minutes instead. It won’t break the game, like it would have in 3e and 4e.)

    I can’t say as I’m surprised you feel all these things. I know how much you loved 4e, and as it was (IMO) quite unlike any other edition of D&D, you were bound to be disappointed with whatever followed it, just as I was disappointed with 4e when it came out! 😉

    If you’re interested in playing a currently-supported game that gives you the feel of 4e, check out 13th Age. I can’t speak to it personally, but I’ve heard from quite a few sources that it plays a lot like how 5e might have played if Wizards had continued in the vein they established with 4e rather than running in the opposite direction.

    1. I’ve never dabbled in long-distance podcastery–some friends and I briefly dabbled in doing one around a table, but much like our early DnD campaign it suffered from a “Sure, everyone can come! But no one has to do anything if they don’t want.” approach that ended with 12 people around a table at which 3 people were talking and 2 people were demanding the rest of the table talk. But we should probably look into it, because man do I want to respond to most of those parenthetical points! Not even in a “I must prove you incorrect” way, more in a “I’m excited to talk about why I like this thing!” way.

      I’m making 2015 a year of positive emittery, because holy shit, 2014. So, for instance, I -positively- want to talk about how 4e is a fairly logical progression of the work in 3.5 (and Pathfinder, were it the official product and had it existed for, say, the last couple years of 3.x, would have made that transition even smoother). Work-wise I’ve got an amply free schedule, so let’s look into a thing.

      I definitely second the vision-respect sentiment though! I also think we both share an appreciation for exploration of systems and approaches, which is what my love of the game has always been grounded in. I love being handed new ways to tell stories, or remix concepts on the table (5th just didn’t -give- me any of that! Okay, I’ll stop.). I’d heard a ton of buzz about 13th Age a few years ago, and when Stacey and I were at PAX meant to see about a booth or the like, but we were both very Baby’s-First-Convention and got rather overwhelmed. I’ll look into picking up a copy of the rules and check it out, thanks for the recommendation! The Dragon Age system had some cool ideas too, a sort of streamlined version of how Warhammer Fantasy, in particular, tries to handle success/failure and action resolution.

  2. I agree with a lot you said. I enjoy the simplicity of 4th so much. In fact, I would say the rules encouraged role-playing and sped the game along. An epic running battle across miles played out easily while a “crunchier” system would have rule books referenced, complex skill interactions reviewed and a complete loss of momentum and speed.

    Yes, the characters were a bit more epic-tiered even at low-levels, but then again a comparable threat was equally powerful. I found the cunning plans and unorthodox tactics worked so much better.

    I agree it is sad to see it fall by the wayside.

    1. I particularly agree with the comparable-threats-to-low-level bit. I’ve now come very, very close to wiping my sometimes 8-person 5th party maybe…four times? Part of the frustration is how many of those times the encounter would have worked out very differently with Minions. Players being drip-fed their goodies over the first five or so levels also feels problematic to me. Rather than learning from first level that, say, my Rogue needs to slip around and position foes–because I have attacks that provide free shifts after connecting–I don’t really see the fullness of that concept until I’m level 3, with my extra bonus action and so forth. In 4th, you started with a full plate, but it was a plate that gave you a ton of versatility; everything after that was just honing and increasing tactical options.

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