Review: 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2008

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

Review Structure

This is a review in three parts, one for each of the three core rulebooks that comprise 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The segments are, however, of unequal size, although hopefully the review is a balanced appraisal of the new edition. This is a whistlestop review, not a blow-by-blow analysis of approximately nine hundred pages of rulebook, so there are doubtless things I should have commented upon, but have omitted accidentally or deliberately.

Player's Handbook

The Player's Handbook kicks off with a strong attempt to explain what gaming is about and how it all works, which is to be applauded in the game that is the typical gateway to the tabletop industry. The core mechanic of roll d20, add all modifiers, and compare against target number (higher or equal means success, lower means failure) is also stated up-front. The design philosophy of "Simple Rules, Many Exceptions" is a bit concerning to this GM as it means that someone will have to know or be able to find at speed those exceptions.

The Character Creation chapter is next up, and gives a good overview of the entire process. Character classes have been formalised into four party roles - the controller (dealing with multiple opponents, e.g. Wizard), the defender (your melee tank, e.g. Fighter and Paladin), the leader (inspiring, "healing", aiding others, e.g. Cleric and Warlord), and the striker (high damage to singleton opponents, e.g. Ranger, Rogue and Warlock). Parties with at least one character in each of these roles will be better equipped than less diverse groups to face combat encounters. An attempt has been made to make the ability scores more evenly valuable so each defense (Armor Class, Fortitude, Reflex and Will) may have contributions from one of two ability scores (e.g. choose the higher of Dexterity and Intelligence for Reflex defense and Armor Class when wearing light armour). Likewise points-buy and standard arrays of stats are now preferred to random rolls. Though purists may disagree with simplifying alignment to five types (good, lawful good, neutral, evil, and chaotic evil), there's good material on making the character more than a bundle of numbers and powers in terms of deities worshipped, mannerisms, personality, and background. This is also where the basics of attack rolls, skill checks, and ability checks are explained - a key factor here that is different from other editions of D&D is that there is a single progression (base attack bonus) for everyone, namely level halved (and rounded down), with ability bonus and other modifiers then piled on top. This is regardless of whether you are a Fighter making a melee attack with a longsword or a Wizard firing a magic missile (that's an Intelligence-based attack versus the target's Reflex defense, so yes a Magic Missile can now miss).

Sometimes D&D is described as a class and level-based game. It would be more accurate to say that D&D 4th Edition is a power-based game, where the classes are simply wrappers for a selection of "powers" and levels determine how many powers are available to the character. Every character class grants powers - these can be attack powers to harm or hinder opponents and utility powers to help the power user and/or allies. At each level, a character gains one or more powers of specific potency and/or feats. Powers can be "at-will" so usable once per combat turn, "per encounter" so once every fight or every five minutes, and daily so once a day or following an extended rest (sleep). Part of this is to remove the whole "Out of memorised spells, we have to stop overnight syndrome", part of this is to make every character balanced against the others in terms of interesting things to do - although it does mean that every player has powers to track. The game allows characters to retrain in powers, i.e. swap existing powers for others and replace low-level powers for higher-level powers. This has received some criticism from other commentators. Given how much preplanning had to be done to ensure a 3.x character qualified for a prestige class many levels in the future and a book-keeping need to rein in the number of powers, especially when most powers don't scale their damage as a character's level advances, then retraining, if handled appropriately, need not be too much of a meta-game intrusion.

The third chapter is Races, and there are eight in the game currently - Dragonborn, Dwarves, Eladrin, Elves, Half-elves, Halflings, Humans and Tieflings. Three of these - the Dragonborn as draconic humanoids, the Eladrin as fey high-elven folk who can teleport, and Tieflings as human variants with infernal lineage - are new as core races and may not suit all worlds. Gnomes are postponed to a future volume of the Player's Handbook and Half-Orcs are also gone. Each race gives bonuses to some ability scores, languages, some bonuses to skills, and some racial powers. Each race has a two-page writeup explaining why you'd want to play them, what they look like, how to play them in terms of cultural mores, suggested names and three pen portraits of archetypal members of the race.

The fourth chapter is Character Classes and it is huge. A 140 pages huge as it has to describe every power available to each class and there's a lot of them from 1st-level all the way up to 30th-level. There's a bundle of terms defined and the concepts of paragon paths and epic destinies are introduced. 4th Edition divides play into three tiers: heroic (1st to 10th), paragon (11th to 20th) and epic (21st to 30th). Paragon paths are lightweight versions of prestige classes giving access to powers that emphasise some aspect of the core character class - and with simple entrance requirements. Epic destinies are cross-class ways in which a character may aspire to some form of immortality in the setting prior to being retired - again it's more lightweight and better thought out than the epic-level play of 3.x.

Back to the character classes. The classes are much more focused in 4th edition with more subtle niche protection.

Clerics are focused on their leadership and aiding/healing roles with the plethora of 3.x deity-specific powers that impinged on other classes' niches translated into rituals. Clerics aren't granted power by their deity, rather they are invested by their faith, so heretical clerics will have to be shut down by their church. Turn Undead is now an attack encounter power dishing out damage, pushing undead away, and immobilising them for a turn - it's not something a Cleric can keep on pumping out every turn, so against major undead, the party team will need to cooperate to take them down.

Fighters, it is suggested, should be built as two-handed weapon wielders or weapon-and-shield experts. They are melee experts and their "powers" reflect this. Yes, they have powers too with the same frequency limits. Explaining away such limits on "martial" powers can be done as either the effort involved is sufficiently extreme that it isn't feasible to use these powers very often or they represent chances to make a deadly strike that only occur every so often (and while the character is always looking to employ them, it is the player who decides when that chance happens.) The latter handwave isn't in the book.

Paladins are suggested to be built as either avenging or protecting paladins. An interesting at-will power is Divine Challenge - the paladin marks a target, and as long as the paladin attacks that target, the target will suffer penalties and "radiant" (aka divine) damage whenever it attacks anyone other than the marking paladin. Lay on Hands enables the paladin to sacrifice one of their healing surges so that another character can use a healing surge (without losing it) to regain a significant fraction of their hits. Every character has a number of healing surges based on class and Constitution bonus but only one can be used per encounter by taking a second wind action - many powers enable a character or an ally to expend an additional healing surge in an encounter.

Rangers have two suggested "builds" - archer ranger and two-weapon melee ranger. They are no longer part-time spell users, but "martial" power users whose exploits support one or other of the two builds.

Rogues are Brawny or Trickster Rogues by build. They have a good selection of possible skills, a toned down version of sneak attack allowing them once per turn to dish out extra damage to an opponent, and a suite of powers that provide additional damage to specific targets and enable them to move around the battlefield. Some powers are adjusted by the choice of Rogue build so this requires careful thought for optimal character construction.

Warlocks are characters who have made a pact with unearthly beings for their powers. These beings may be either eldritch fey, Lovecraftian cthulhoid horrors of the Far Realm, or the infernal devils. However, there's no actual downside in the base rules for any of these pacts and a warlock simply acquires and keeps their pact-given powers, just like clerics and paladins face no divine sanction for misbehavior. This may change in setting-specific books. For now, warlocks are just spell-casters who deal out large amounts of damage to individual foes.

Warlords are martial leaders. They can stand in the line of battle, but their powers help by aiding others to make better attacks, move around the battlefield, or activate their healing surges ("an inspiring blow giving allies new heart"), and so forth. With Warlords in the mix, a party does not require a Cleric for healing.

Wizards in 4th Edition are "boom-mages" or "Evokers". Their spells are combat magic and like the Cleric, non-combat effects have been converted into rituals. There's been real effort in balancing the spell powers - the top end has been drastically reduced in damage. Meteor Swarm is no longer the equivalent of a nuclear bomb - it's a mere 8d6 + Intelligence damage to all creatures that fail their Reflex defense within a 5 square burst.

Powers don't last. They do their damage if they get past the appropriate defense and only some deliver ongoing damage. Thereafter there's a simple d20 roll to see if a target "saves" to end the effect, not a saving throw as in previous editions. The upside to this is that players won't be out of the combat on a "save or die/fall asleep/etc" type effect.

No bards, no druids, no barbarians, no sorcerers, no monks in 4th Edition. Yet. They'll be appearing in future volumes of the Player's Handbook.

The Skills chapter is next. The number of skills has been dramatically reduced to 17 with many skills now becoming portmanteau skills, e.g. Athletics can be used for Climb, Jump and Swim, Thievery is Disable Trap, Open Lock, Pick Pocket and Sleight of Hand. In 3.x D&D, characters had skill points to spend on skills. Not so in 4e. Drawing upon the rules from Star Wars Saga Edition, skill checks are d20 roll plus half level (rounded down) + 5 if the character is trained with the skill +2 if there's a racial bonus + any other mods. Thus characters either know a skill or they don't. Race and class determine what a character knows but the Skill Training feat allows characters to access non-class skills. Given the power-based nature of 4e, this is a good move. Spending skill points in 3.x was just a chore. The decision to cut general knowledge, craft, profession and the like emphasises that 4e is less about simulating a fantasy world and more about a combat intensive game.

Chapter six is Feats. There's a lot less of them than in 3.x by the end and there are less prerequisites and feat chains in evidence. There's some nice touches in there like Divine feats that give deity-specific powers (instead of just turn undead), racial feats for the Dwarf's Dwarf, etc., and a division of feats per tier of play. Feats also allow characters to go beyond the limits of their class, so picking up weapon or armor proficiencies or even Ritual Caster or do some very modest "multiclassing". Given that every class now has powers of one kind or another, I don't see that much point in "multiclassing" where it simply allows you to swap one of your class powers for someone else's.

Chapter seven is Equipment, and not just your weapons, armor and trusty ten foot pole. Magic items have moved into the Player's Handbook. They've been pruned back in number and potency, and now have "levels" to indicate their power relative to characters. It's clear that 4e is much less about how much stuff characters are toting around and that's a good thing. It's also clear that the designers don't want people selling magic items - by the rules you only get 20% of actual value when selling items or disenchanting them for their magic (literally residuum) - and I have a feeling that this "economy" would not stand up to detailed analysis. Magic items are divided by body locations for carrying and this gives a slot system that will also rein in how much kit can be deployed at any time. There's nice stuff like pact blades, holy symbols, orbs, wands and staves that give spell users bonuses to their power related attacks and damages, but characters don't have to own these to use their powers.

Chapter eight is Adventuring, which is non-combat related rules on exploration and rest and recovery. It also defines milestones and action points. Characters start with one action point (which allows an extra action or permits a character to use certain feats and paragon powers). Whenever characters complete two encounters without taking eight hours off for sleep etc, they get another action point and can keep racking these up until they take that extended rest, whereupon they reset to one point. It's a nice touch reminiscent of fortune points in Warhammer 2nd edition and an encouragement to players to keep adventuring, keep moving rather than stopping for a break the moment they've burned a few powers.

Chapter nine is combat. The rules are shorter and cleaner than in 3.x. The mechanics are easier to understood with definitions of terms such as "combat advantage", "dazed", etc. in helpful places. There is a downside - 4e combat requires a battlemat and distinctive counters / miniatures to run it. Powers and combat actions are expressed in terms of 5-foot squares with combatants shifting around the battlefield, sliding, pushing, or pulling opponents, sneaky strikers needing to flank opponents, opportunity actions triggered by moving through threatened squares. You might be able to run 4e combat without a physical representation but you'll have to do a lot of fudging.

Chapter ten is Rituals. Tenser's Floating Disk, Animal Messenger, Knock, Raise Dead and more have become rituals. Basically a ritual is any non-combat spell, particularly those involved with information gathering, strategic movement or which have an effect that duplicates a skill (e.g. Knock replacing Thievery-based Open Lock or Discern Lies rather than an Insight check). Rituals require the Ritual Caster feat (either through class or by taking the feat individually), use of a skill to determine (some aspect of) the ritual's effect, time (ten minutes and up), and cash in terms of "component cost" and the ritual's cost (think ritual scroll and adding it to your ritual book).

Summing up on the Player's Handbook, it is a must-have for all the players in a 4e game. If you don't have access to what your character's powers actually do on your character sheet, you need the book. And everything else that a player needs to know is covered too.

Dungeon Master's Guide

This is the slimmest volume of the three core rulebooks at a mere 220 or so pages. It is probably the best iteration of the Dungeon Master's Guide of the versions I've experienced (3.0, 3.5, and now 4e) and is squarely aimed at Dungeon Masters rather than being riddled with bits the players need access to like prestige classes and magic items as in prior editions.

The first chapter is "How to be a DM" and is a really helpful guide to doing just that for the newbie GM, looking at what DMs need, the types of players (actors, power gamers, storytellers, etc.) and why they play, building a party, campaign styles (campaign versus episodic), and table rules. That's page count well spent with no bias to any particular style of gaming, other than people should have fun.

"Running the Game" follows this with solid advice on preparation and what to prepare, the different modes of the game, narration and pacing, improvising and troubleshooting. Each segment gets one or two tightly focused pages of guidance, without waffle and tuned to the needs of the game.

"Combat Encounters" is a mixture of what the DM needs to know in terms of how to run a combat from behind the screen and a suite of useful rules for unusual situations such as underwater combat, mounted combat, aerial combat as well as diseases and poisons. Diseases are interesting - if a character falls prey to a disease (usually by failing an attack versus Fortitude defense), they take some initial effect and thereafter make Endurance checks at regular intervals to see if their condition improves, stays the same or worsens, moving or not moving along a condition track until they are healed or reach a final state which may be death. It's neat.

"Building Encounters" is how to create combat challenges to really test the mettle of the party. A good party will be acting as a team using their characters' powers in a joint effort to defeat the monsters. The only way of countering this is to build monstrous groups with different monsters taking on roles such as artillery, skirmisher, leaders, elite and solo monsters, and this involves "buying" monsters in terms of their XP from a budget of XP that the party could gain from defeating them. It's less complex than the mess of Challenge Ratings from 3.x, but don't forget that monsters should make sense together not just make up the numbers. Terrain, mundane and fantastic, is also covered here - combats should not be taking place in bare dungeon rooms and corridors.

Chapter five is on "Non-combat Encounters" and is about skill challenges, puzzles and traps. Let's talk about skill challenges. A skill challenge is an extended task that will be performed by the party. It's not a simple, single skill check. It's about a series of skill checks using different skills where the party as a whole collaborates to determine which skills to apply and tries to obtain a certain number of successes before they fail too many times. Some of these skill checks are obvious opportunities for roleplaying, others rely on player ingenuity in convincing the DM that a skill is relevant and rolling the dice. It's all about engaging multiple players in this aspect of the game rather than some character with a huge bonus hogging all the gameplay in say an NPC interaction scene. And they even get experience points for succeeding. The section on puzzles is well done with useful ideas that won't get the DM lynched by players who can't see the answer. There's a good selection of traps with Difficulty Classes to perceive them and ways of using Thievery, Dungeoneering, Nature and other skills as well as brute force and ignorance to counter them.

"Adventures" is next on our tour of the DM's responsibilities. This chapter looks at how to use published adventures in a DM's campaign in terms of the subtle adjustments needed to make them work, and how to build adventures from scratch. It also covers "quests", which map to individual and party goals (in HARP and RMC speak). It looks to the broad brush of where adventures can be set (classic dungeon crawls, wilderness journeys, urban, and planar excursions) and to the specifics of what might be found in an encounter location. Well presented and to the point advice in every area.

Rewards is a short chapter on giving out experience points, on handling experience points for absent players, and treasure. The latter is how to divide out "parcels" of treasure over the course of a level, and ten suggested "parcels" for each level from 1st to 30th are given. A parcel might be a magic item, coins, art objects, gems, or some combination of these. It does seem rather formulaic but that's the price to be paid for achieving balance in this aspect of the game. It's probably just as well that players have no need to consult the DMG any longer or they might start expecting their parcels.

Campaigns is the next chapter covering such matters as using published campaigns, campaign themes (from dungeon of the week to primordial threats and divine strife), and fantasy subgenres such as horror, intrigue and swashbuckling. There's sound advice on beginning, running, and ending a campaign, and how it all fits into the three tiers of play, both in terms of starting at levels above 1st and ending at the end of a tier, not just 30th level epic.

Chapter nine embraces "The World" and explains the core assumptions of the base D&D setting. This is the "points of light" where there are enclaves of civilisation struggling in the dark age aftermath of the collapse of an empire in a cycle of rising and falling civilisations. Monsters and magic are real, the monsters everywhere, the magic accepted but not pervasive, in a mysterious and ancient world where adventurers are exceptional characters. From this, the chapter expands outwards to consider what civilisation consists of in terms of settlements and what DMs need to do in creating them, and the surrounding wilderness in terms of its dangers. The Planes in 4e have been much simplified - there's the Astral Sea wherein float the domains of the gods and the devils, the Elemental Chaos with the Abyss of the demons at its heart (no more individual elemental planes), the material world and its echoes the Feywild (the bright home of the fey and eladrin) and the Shadowfell (dark and sinister, where the dead abide for a time), and the Far Realm where reality is different. In the Player's Handbook, the commandments of the good and neutral deities are given for the benefit of player Clerics and Paladins, in the Dungeon Master's Guide, similar detail is provided on the motivations and the doctrines of the evil gods. Artifacts are also introduced as potent and wilful magic items whose powers wax and wane according to the mutual concordance of goals between possessor and artifact. Artifacts are not intended to remain with characters - when their purpose is served or they have grown too wroth with a character, they simply move on. DMs running a "Destroy the One Ring"-style campaign would need to adjust some of the rules here - having the One Ring teleport back to Sauron at the drop of a hat because Frodo wants to drop it in Mount Doom isn't much of a story. The chapter ends on some extra detail on the languages of the base 4e setting - and again they've been simplified down to a mere ten languages and six scripts deliberately to ensure that language complications need not be a problem in the game.

"The DM's Toolbox" is the penultimate chapter, which is a crunch-heavy chapter on how to customise and build new monsters and NPCs. It's all about quick and easy guidelines and the application of templates to achieve results without tons of number-crunching. DMs are advised not to get bogged down in building NPCs to the same level of detail as PCs unless they are the exceptional recurring villain or equivalent. Anything else is too much work. There are rules for creating random dungeons, random encounters and even running without a DM if a group just wants a sequence of combats to pass an evening.

Finally we have "Fallcrest", an example of the base setting, giving a small town for characters to use as a base and as a source of urban adventures, the surrounding region complete with landmarks, suggestions for adventure locales and tie-ins to published 4e adventures such as Keep on the Shadowfell etc., and a very basic 5-encounter dungeon crawl to give 1st-level characters and their players some experience in the game. It's a really well done starting point for a campaign and an even better practical introduction to the game.

The 4e Dungeon Master's Guide is being widely touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread. If like me, you've had access to Rolemaster's original Campaign Law for world-building, RMSS Gamemaster Law in terms of player roles, story and campaign building, progressing stories and campaigns, GURPS Fantasy (the 4th edition volume by William Stoddard not the 3rd edition Yrth setting) on guidelines and toolkits to build any fantasy campaign, and others, then you'll see it in a more balanced perspective. It is certainly the best version I've seen for D&D and is an excellent resource for 4e.

Monster Manual

The Monster Manual is basically an A to Z of classic monsters and new additions to the D&D bestiary, drawing upon the reworking of the planar multiverse. (There's plenty of classic monsters not in this one which will doubtless appear in future volumes of the Monster Manual series.) It is prefaced by a quick guide to reading monster entries, and postscripted with a quick and dirty quide to using some monsters as races (so you can have a Gnome or Eberron Warforged if you really can't wait for the Gnome in a future PHB or Wizards to publish 4e Eberron), a glossary of definitions, and a listing of Monsters by level (helpful when trying to determine appropriate challenges for PCs).

What it lacks is an index. But surely, Nicholas, you don't need an index when there's a table of contents listing the monsters in alphabetical order? You do when the designers have grouped individual monsters under broader categories. For instance, the tarrasque is hidden under Abomination, Titans are in the Giants section, and snaketongues are under yuan-ti. Is a Succubus a Demon or a Devil? You'll have to look in both sets if you don't already know this.

The monster entries themselves are short and concise. Lavish colour illustrations take the place of textual physical descriptions. Stat blocks are mercifully short. There are suggested tactics for using the monster's various powers effectively, suggestions for what might be gleaned from a successful Nature or Dungeoneering skill check, and suggested encounter groups. It's in the nature of D&D combat that monster groups need to have members filling multiple combat roles - otherwise the diversity of roles supported by a team of player-characters will steamroller the encounter - so most of these encounter groups involve a mixture of different species and that can be somewhat jarring. Equally jarring are the concept of high-level minions (a minion regardless of level has one hit point, so one successful hit and they're out of the combat) - an 11th-level Angel of Valor Cohort or the 17th-level Azer Warrior, anyone?

There's a sense in which the Monster Manual is attempting to intensify the branding of D&D monsters. Instead of simple Elementals, we have Rockfire Dreadnoughts and Earthwind Ravagers; Greenscale Marsh Mystics (see Lizardfolk), Shadar-Kai Gloomblades, Demonweb Terrors (see Spiders), and so on. UK readers may be thinking "These are not just monsters; these are D&D monsters" in the spirit of the Marks & Spencer food advertising campaign, and you'd be right.

On the upside they have included Dwarves, Elves, Humans (!), etc as monsters, further stressing that it isn't necessary to fully stat up monsters and humanoids unless they are intended as recurring villains or "Big Bads". Instead of having the umpteen powers available to individual PCs (at high-levels) and a party collectively, significant monsters have a chance of recharging one or more major powers each turn, which simplifies the workload on the DM. And with stat blocks being so much shorter, a lot of the truly wearisome preparation effort that 3.x DMs had to wade through is gone (and good riddance to it).

My complaints aside, the Monster Manual is a strong member of the 4th Edition trinity of initial core rulebooks.

In Summary

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is a very good game in many respects. It is a game that is easy on the eye with clean layout and appropriately spaced text, not tiny text obscured by a background of faux parchment paper (to take a swipe at the splash pages of 3.0 D&D). It is a very balanced game in that every player will have equally useful and interesting things to do regardless of their character class choice. The downside of this balance is that differentiation between classes will be more subtle - if everyone has cool powers that mechanically work the same, regardless of any flavor text then the experience of being a wizard will be not that much different to being a fighter. The use of character builds and the like strongly suggests to me that characters will be more narrowly focused on their niche - fighters will be tanks of a certain type, rangers will be archers or two-weapon wielders, etc. It is a game that emphasises teamwork and a share in the limelight for every player and character. It's a game where many of the rules have been simplified and clarified for easier game play - the price is that combat demands the battlemat and the miniatures. It's a game with great advice for the referee and much of the preparation work involved in DMing simplified - though for me personally mapping out encounters is not a happy task and one that would compel me to use published adventures. It is a game that emphasises the hardcore combat and gaming end of the roleplaying spectrum rather than the storytelling (narrativist) and simulationist aspects.

This is not a game that I'd be willing to run for a prolonged period, because I'd quickly tire of mapping out encounter locations and the whole miniatures emphasis. It is, however, a game that I would have fun with as a player.