It’s Like Moving Into A New House, Complete With Hernia

2008 July 29
by Vanir

After a hiatus of a month or so, we finally got to play D&D again last weekend. Well, technically. We decided to take the plunge and get into 4e so we aren’t completely incompetent when we show up at Gen Con this year. It was time to roll up characters, and with the exception of Sirgeekelot, nobody had played 4e before. God, it hurts to change editions. I’m sure many of you can sympathize here. In 3.5e, I’d been playing and using that book long enough that I could find whatever I needed pretty fast. (And if I couldn’t, Stupid Ranger usually knew the answer.) Now we’re all screwed!

That being said, it did seem somewhat more straightforward to roll up one’s character in 4e than in previous versions. I decided to try out the Wizard class, the lone “Controller” role in the book, to see how it stacked up against the 3.5e wizards I was used to seeing. Here’s a few thoughts on the experience:

  • After some mild arm-twisting, Dante talked us all into trying out the various methods of rolling up stats. Sirgeekelot did the point-buy system, I did the standard array method, and Stupid Ranger did the traditional rolling method. I’ve always hated methods other than rolling, I think it lends to mediocre stats and I usually use a crappy stat as a personality quirk for my character. Even so, I did wind up with a Wizard with a 16 INT and no stats so low that he would not to be able to open a door or wet himself in public or something. I think the standard array would be a good way to roll stats up if you wanted everybody to be exactly equal stats-wise or you were in a huge hurry. But I think I’ll be rolling next time.
  • The designers of 4e have been dutifully streamlining everything to make play go faster, more balanced and more smooth. This means they’ve combined and abstracted some features out from 3.5e – like Spot and Listen checks, which are now Perception. The list of skills is about one third of its former length, and choosing and training in these skills no longer requires a degree in calculus and a magical sherpa guide of leprechaun descent to guide you through the process — changes which I welcome.

    Saving throws now use 2 ability scores, the higher of which determines one’s bonus. This means that for the first time in recorded history, you can roll up a wizard with a good Reflex save. (Incidentally, our good buddy Sirgeekelot has designed a new t-shirt based on this discovery, which is now on sale in our shop.) I’m not entirely sure why INT would make one’s Reflex save higher, as I’ve seen some very smart people walk into some very hard punches in my day, but I’m going to chalk this one up to “it makes the game more balanced”.

  • It seems like everybody has spells now. It’s just that melee types tend to cast their spells with swords and maces and call them “exploits”. Every class features a lot of picking of specifically named powers, which was always the part that took me forever when playing a spellcaster in 3.5e. Despite this, it did not take long for me to pick powers (probably because there weren’t many to choose from at 1st level). This was nice too.
  • I initially looked at the wizard and cleric powers and got upset because all I saw was combat spells. How the hell was I supposed to magically lock a door or grease up a staircase/elk/orc princess? I’m a roleplayer, dammit!

    It took me several minutes of kvetching and about 8hp damage from Dante’s Clue Bat before I realized that rituals and spells were not, in fact, the same thing. A lot of the non-combat spells can be found in the Rituals section in the back, but not even close to all of them even the 3.5e PHB had. As previously stated, they have done some work to combine/generalize the usage of many game elements, so it may well be that I just haven’t read over the list enough. One thing I didn’t like, though, is that most of the rituals take a great deal of time longer than their 3.5e spell counterparts. Need to magically lock (or unlock, for that matter) a door before the bad guys catch up to you? I hope you have a 10 minute head start. I’m not sure why the designers felt the need to do this or what rationale is behind it, but this certainly puts a cramp in my “use spells for unusual roleplaying purposes” style.

    The other weird thing about rituals — why in the hell are they at the very end of the book? They’re literally the very last thing (besides a page of playtester credits) before the index. Did the people laying out the book forget that part until after the presses got started and just cram it in there at the end? Not that I really mind. It makes them much easier to find. My initial impulse was to say it would have been a little better to find it somewhere closer to the character classes, but I suppose the previous editions had the spells broken out into their own section as well. The fact that class-specific powers and everybody-gets-em rituals are separate was a little confusing to me, but it’s something I can get past pretty easily.

  • There were some conventions frequently used in the book that I found, for lack of a better term, obtuse. It was like they expected you to know what it was, but hid the definition somewhere really obscure. Dante and I both searched for quite awhile before we figured out that [W] was shorthand for one’s weapon damage. A lot of the powers in the book say things like “and an ally makes a saving throw”. A saving throw against what? Does that mean he gets to succeed the next time he has to roll one, or is this some beneficial effect you’re giving him (and if so, why is he saving against it)?

    However, I have a feeling these are clearly defined somewhere I didn’t read yet, and that their usage will flow freely like water for all of us at the table once we get to play for a few sessions. I’m sure I’m going to feel completely stupid once I find out what this new saving throw business means.

  • I got a definite impression that they’re approaching 4e as a work in progress, with errata being issued and the PHB2 slated for release next year. It sort of reminds me of how software patches work, except unfortunately adding and changing things to tabletop gaming means you either have to juggle 5 books to play with everything or you have to buy new books that have all the new stuff in it. My wallet, my back, and my all-consuming lust for convenience hate that part.

I think most of the pain of rolling up our first 4e characters had a lot more to do with the fact that we are playing with a whole new set of rules than any real problems with the rules themselves. That and we really didn’t get to use these characters at all yet (that’s next session).

I will have to reserve judgment until we actually get to play for a few sessions, but I’m hopeful about this new edition at long last. Overall, I still have some minor concerns with 4e but it’s not the “OMG ITS NOW WORLD OF WARCRAFT TABLETOP RPG” that I had feared. I was confused by a lot of things, but I have a hunch that it will likely turn out that I, rather than the game, am obtuse. Only time will tell!

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Ben Pop permalink
    July 29, 2008

    I did the math and it appears the Standard Array is an instance of the Point-Buy system. I think it’s odd they didn’t mention that.

    The focus on combat is cool, except for I’m trying to introduce some new players and they seem much more like the roleplaying types. So I feel like I’m stuck between the rules of 3.5 and the combat-oriented-ness of 4. Maybe I should learn the Storyteller system, they’re pretty much gaga over Buffy and Twilight anyway. But I’ve never played it, so yeah.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying 4e so far! I’ve got my own misgivings, sure, but I’ll be excited to finally play soon (if that DM will get on finding a place for us to play). After being lightly introduced to 3.5 at the beginning of this year, I’m glad to have a new version that doesn’t bend my mind so.

  2. jonathan permalink
    July 30, 2008

    Nice write up Dante. The author of At-Will also posted something similar (but shorter) that I commented on yesterday. My group loves 4E, definately works well with roleplayers as well as combatphreaks as well. And, wtf does [W] or 2[W] mean? Yeah… we strugled with that for about 15 minutes, I mean – we correctly suspected what it meant, but we want to be see it in print. One of my favorite aspects of the new 3E is that anyone can cast rituals with the right set up. We have a human fighter, for example, who is our ritual master. Finally, another refreshing first for D&D: our party has no cleric, and everything runs just fine.

  3. Jeremy permalink
    July 30, 2008

    Now I don't feel so dumb! I, too, searched around for a while before figuring out what [W] meant — that was a stupid oversight on WOTC's part, which could have solved the issue with a single * after the first instance and a footnote. My guess is that it, and the other "don't you know that already?" issues you mentioned are products of long in-house testing and usage…to the point that writers and editors didn't realize that there were consumers outside the building who hadn't been using the new rules, in some form, for a year or more. I'd take them, however, as a minor irritant, rather than a major problem.

    I agree, too, that the rituals require too much time — which means it's time for house rules for some of them at my table. I'm thinking about going through my 3.5 materials and pulling out some other useful spells and 'ritualafying' them as additional player options.

    I've run a few sessions already — two from the Keep on the Shadowfell and one of our own creation — and I'm very happy with the planning aspects and gameflow of the system. It seems that some people are hung up on how it's not like 3.5, without taking the time to think about how it can facilitate great fantasy storytelling & action. They focus on what it's not as a rules set, and not what the new rules DO in practice.

    I have one dutiful ruleslawyer/powergamer in my group, one who NEVER reads the rules and still has to be reminded about provoking OA from his moves, and one who just wants to tell interesting stories while hacking & slashing. The three of them, last week, were actually creaing some synergy between their respective powers & exploits during combat, and it flowed like a cool novel. Warlord, Fighter, and Rogue — and they were playing off each other's abilities on the fly…the rogue would slide his target, while the warlord rallied his buddies, and the fighter crushed the things that were scooted toward his with extra attacks granted by said Warlord. It was cinema at the table, and all accounted for within the rules. Very cool.

    Go have fun with it — the rules may not be as exciting to read, and character generation may seem more limited, but the gameplay is far better.

  4. Ben Overmyer permalink
    July 30, 2008

    A clarification:

    – Reflex, Will, and Fortitude are DEFENSES, not saving throws, in 4E

    – A saving throw is just the throw of a d20 with a 50/50 chance of saving (11-20 saves, 1-10 does not). That’s it. It never changes.

  5. Dante permalink
    July 30, 2008

    jonathan, I’d love to take credit for this one but Vanir’s your author this go-around.

    I need to digest all these good comments and formulate my own, but some really good discussion is going on here! 🙂

  6. Kameron permalink
    July 30, 2008

    I lot of my frustration (and yours, from the sound of the write up) has to do with the poor information design of the PHB rather than the rules themselves. The chapters did not follow the natural progression one uses to create a character, causing a lot of flipping back and forth. And I also got tripped up by the [W], as well as some other Power-related terms.

    As for the spells/rituals issue, I’m considering a conversion of some rituals to utility spells based on how they were used in previous editions.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    July 30, 2008

    4e has things like “5 damage ongoing, save ends”. Basicly most things that hurt you and last a while you get to save for at the end of each of your turns. (and the bad thing normally happens at the start of your turns)

    So that power you were looking at gives you an extra chance to save. Nice if you are staring 10 fire damage down with only 6 HP left!

    sleep spells are also “save ends” as are many slow and paralise type effects.

    – Stripes

  8. Vanir permalink
    July 30, 2008

    Holy crap, excellent comments everyone!

    @Ben Overmeyer & Stripes:

    Now THAT makes sense, thanks for clearing the whole saving throw thing up for me. That's the stuff that's really hard for me — the stuff that has the same name and has mechanics that appear on their face to work the same but in practice work totally differently.

    It might have been nice if they'd included a note in there for us old-timers that explained to us that they changed the meaning of the term. Get off my lawn!!!!

  9. Dave The Game permalink
    July 30, 2008

    “I’m not entirely sure why INT would make one’s Reflex save higher”

    Other systems explain this as INT representing being able to think (and react) quickly, but I don’t know if it’s spelled out in 4e.

    “I’m not sure why the designers felt the need to do this or what rationale is behind it”

    It’s to give people who have those skills a reason to use them. Before, you didn’t need Open Lock if you had a Knock spell in the party. Making it 10 minutes and cost gp means if you have a door to unlock in a rush, the Rogue (or whomever is trained in Thievery) is your go-to guy.

    “I got a definite impression that they’re approaching 4e as a work in progress, with errata being issued and the PHB2 slated for release next year”

    3.0 and 3.5 needed errata right out of the gate too, they were just slower in putting it out there officially 🙂 And stuff like PHB2 is mainly for more classes- for example, you shouldn’t need it if you’re not playing a Barbarian.

  10. Vanir permalink
    July 30, 2008


    I can buy INT helping one's reaction time, and I know errata is just a normal part of life. I'm just bitching cause I hate carrying around more books. 🙂 What we need is like an Amazon Kindle for D&D books. That would be cool as hell.

    I get what you're saying about rituals taking a long time encouraging people to use skills, but it used to be we didn't need a rogue to get a door open without breaking it down. I can see the rituals taking longer than skills, but 10 minutes is so long that non-combat spells are pretty much useless if you're in a hurry. And we hates that. Oh, yes. We hates that, precious.

  11. Ben Pop permalink
    July 30, 2008

    On saves: It's actually 10-20 success, 1-9 failure, IIRC; so a 55% chance of success.

    On defenses: I like what they did with the defenses, especially with my bad luck. However, since they did that to Fort, Ref, and Will, why didn't they just extend the Take-10 out to Initiative as well? Again, I recall when I was a rogue but rolled bad…. And with that, you'd have 3 things (up from 2) based around the same attributes (AC, Reflex, *Initiative <= max{Dex mod, Int mod}).

  12. The_Gun_Nut permalink
    August 1, 2008

    One thing they brought back in rituals, that I thought needed to be left out, is the whole “Tenser’s Floating Disk Used to Travel the World” problem. In 3.5, they altered TFD so that you could not order it to move; the disk simply followed you around. Now, in 4E, the disk follows you but also obeys your movement commands for the next 24 hours. No need to buy horses when you got a little disk action goin’ on!

    OK, that’s extreme, but I know ppl (myself included) who pulled that stunt in 2E. And I will pull that stunt again in 4E, because I can. It’s not a game breaker, but it makes difficult terrain a non-issue, and even makes some impassable terrain (lava or pools of acid, for example) trivial.

    I guess my point would be that some of the spells converted into 24 hour ritual form might make things too easy for your players. Playtime is the only thing that will tell.

    Speaking of playtime, once you guys get some game time under your belts, you will notice how smoothly and quickly combat rolls along. I always enjoyed exciting and imaginative encounters, but 3.5 as-is doesn’t make for terribly quick combats. While I feel that 4E is limited in certain aspects, the big thing it does is speed up the slowest part of the game so that you and your players can get SO much more done. As you play the game more, the things you have some confusion about will resolve themselves very quickly and, some might say, intuitively.

    Oh, and before SR gets ahold of the ranger and begins drooling, WotC put an errata on the ranger exploit “Cascade of Blades” limiting it to 5 attacks. So no one round kills of any monster in the book. (I mention SR because she’s, well, she’s the ranger.)

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