Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons was awesome. Someone has to say it.
Nothing quite triggers the members of Dungeons and Dragons internet community like a good old fashioned Edition War. In a perfect world, fans would celebrate each edition as a cultural achievement unto themselves, pluralistic and egalitarian in their own right. In this idyllic place, we fans would discuss the merits of each system in an adult manner without resorting to shouted insults of whose mother prefers the company of Beholders. So uncivilized.
Instead, many choose to spill their digital blood on battlefields that are littered with the squabbling viscera of whose preferred edition of the world’s best role playing game is best. One edition, in particular, receives more than its fair share of scorn and lumps from the prognosticators of gloom online. If the title wasn’t enough to give it away, I am of course talking about Fourth Edition.
Yeah, Fourth Edition gets a bum rap. I get it. Having now had the opportunity to play almost every iteration of the game, Fourth Edition does stand out in comparison. I try not to use absolutes like “best” or worst”, rather focusing on labeling the different editions of D&D as just that: different. Only Siths deal in absolutes! Well, and Jedi too. They were judgmental as well.
Though I was an early adopter of Fifth Edition, I often think back fondly to my 4e days. Fourth Edition offers balance, options, and a unique ruleset that seem missing in Fifth Edition. In fact, I’m currently thinking about returning to 4e this summer by running a Gamma World series.
So for the month of April, I decided to pause and write a few articles celebrating this oft maligned and misunderstood edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s the perfect time to look back on this edition and perhaps dust if off for a new spin. Today’s article is about my personal experience with this edition of the game, the first Tabletop RPG that I ever played.
My D&D Origin Story
My introduction to role playing, and D&D in particular, was one that was long in the making. I look back on my life circumstances and interests now and think how in the world I somehow missed getting in on D&D before 2010, and as an adult no less!
Growing up Southern Baptist in the buckle of the Bible Belt (or armpit of the Confederacy, your choice) in the 80s and 90s, Dungeons and Dragons was very much seen as slightly less Satanic than summoning a demon, but also slightly more Satanic than ritualistically sacrificing virgins on eldritch altars in the middle of the woods. It… had a reputation, let’s say. I can remember there being worried PTA meetings and after school assemblies to inform parents of the unspeakable horrors such a game would inflict on impressionable minds. Little did the worried, God fearing adults in our lives know that D&D players were more concerned with eating great snacks and smacking around Orcs than they were in furthering the cause of the Dark Lord of the hellish pits.
Several of my nerdy friends in high school began to dabble in the dark arts of D&D somewhere around 95 or 96. My parents strictly forbade my brother and I from participating because of the immeasurable damage it would do to our immortal soul. It was easy enough for us to ignore because a) we had so many nerdy interests and b) it gave us something to make fun of our friends for because that’s the primary reason to have friends in high school. And razz them, we did. Mercilessly. However, in secret, I created a paladin with the group’s DM, only to cower from trying the game out after some of my other friends found out that I had done so. I was already well into my love for fantasy/sword and sorcery. It was cool to like Conan, but severely uncool to want to role play as him.
By the time, I reached college, I had gotten heavily into PC/console gaming. D&D was a major presence on my PC. Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2, Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance 1 & 2, Planescape, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights were all staples of my late night gaming sessions during my early 20s. Playing D&D video games allowed me to scratch that fantasy itch without having the stigma of being that kind of nerd.
I continued to dabble in the video game end of the spectrum until 2010. That was pivotal year for my D&D nerdom. Two things worked in tandem with one another to draw me into actually trying out D&D: Heroscape and the Encounters program. I loved Heroscape and had been playing for several years by the time Heroscape released a D&D master set. It was while I was in search of some of the figures that I asked about them in a comic shop while traveling that spring. The comic shop owner sold me the figures, but asked if I knew about the Encounters program. Of course, I had no idea what the public play Encounters program was, but I politely, yet firmly affirmed my disdain for role playing.
The shop owner very succinctly reminded me that I was walking out of his store with painted D&D minis and a stack of comic books. “Let your nerd flag fly, dude,” he told me. He pulled up the Wizards website on his computer, found a local store to my town that hosted Encounters and told me to check it out. I did so the very next week. Boy, I was blown away.
I will never forget that moment when I sat down at the table for my first Encounters session at Above Board Games in Fort Mill, SC (RIP, good friends). Little did I know that I would be running that very same program for the store in six months. The DM gave me a laminated character sheet, a paladin, time fulfilling itself from that lost character in high school. My first roll ever in a D&D game? A crit. It was destiny.
It was a memorable experience that led to bigger and better things, but it was also memorable because it led me down the 4e rabbit hole. The system was intuitive, simple and complex all at once. It reminded me of the CRPG D&D systems that I had played for much of the previous 15 years on PC and console. Coming from the world of video games, Fourth Edition made total sense to me. I know that’s why many people hate 4e, but I like the fact that it feels like a good turn based CRPG. I cut my role playing teeth on games that used similar mechanics on PC and console. If the goal of 4e was to pull the video gamer into the tabletop experience, Wizards of the Coast had at least one convert in me.
What 4E Did Well
As I became more familiarized with the system and other systems, even those outside of D&D, I began to realize just how remarkably balanced 4e was by comparison. Fourth Edition avoided the pitfalls of nearly every previous edition by making every class important to the game. Spell casters weren’t going to outclass every other PC by level 8 because great care and attention had been placed on making sure parties were balanced. Everyone had a role, and each role added to the strategy of battles that took place in 4e.
This was a major criticism of Fourth Edition. Yes, this edition was very combat focused. Yes, combat could be a slog. Yes, it intentionally aped the combat systems of video games. Yes, it certainly earned its reputation as a “Roll” Play system rather than being a “Role” Play system. All of those things are true. However, that did not mean that one had to make combat the central aspect of the game.
Opportunities for role playing, as in any system, are generally left up to the DM. Want a combat heavy system? Want a role play heavy system? Want something in between? Nearly any system your table uses can facilitate any of those options. If you felt like 4e was too combat heavy it’s because your table, and more likely DM, made that choice. It’s not a flaw of the system. It was flaw in how your table approached it. I tried as a DM, as did the DMs I knew in the 4e era, to mix it up. In fact, I would argue that I used social encounters just as much with Fourth Edition as I do with Fifth Edition, except they were better because of the skill challenge rules in 4e. It’s all a matter of perspective.
There’s no denying that the 4e game system was there to facilitate tactical, miniature based combat. Coming from the Heroscape background, I loved that aspect of the game. I was fortunate enough to have a ton of Heroscape minis and found D&D minis on the cheap to help assist in this aspect of the game. D&D also produced a ton of maps and map tiles to give DMs the tools they needed to create arenas for combat. It was a ton of fun plotting out and planning interesting combat encounters. Because of the unique balance in both PCs and monsters, one could produce a balanced encounter with reasonable levels of certainty. Combat rose well above the ”hit ‘em ‘til they are out of hit points” mentality.
Synergy between PCs and action economy was another thing I loved about this system. One couldn’t and shouldn’t ever create a character in a vacuum since role playing games are inherently social. Creating a character without at the very least consulting other players would prove to be deadly for any party. Everyone had an important role, whether it was being the tank, the heavy hitter, the buffer, or the support, every single PC brought something unique and valuable to the table. One can still do this with Fifth Edition, but it isn’t as valuable as it was in Fourth Edition.
4E Is Worth Revisiting
I played and loved Fourth Edition three to four times a week up until the Fifth Edition playtest. My groups and I were early adopters of the system, and like Fourth Edition, we loved the new system as well. I didn’t move on from Fourth Edition because I hated the rules. I moved on because the gaming community moved on. It happens as part of the natural progression of things. I harbor no ill will towards Fourth Edition.
It was my first system. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best I have played, but my nostalgia for it grows by the day. Over the next few weeks, I will post at least a couple of more articles about the system. There’s plenty to beg, borrow, and steal from Fourth Edition for almost any system, but especially for Fifth Edition.
Thanks for reading! I hope this at least inspires someone to go back and flip through their old 4e books. It’s a magnificently robust game system that deserves another look a decade or so past its release. Running a few sessions promises a fun, throwback respite from the 5e malaise some groups are no doubt experiencing at this point. Regardless, make sure to never forget using a Second Wind and please make your saving throw to gain a healing surge!