I recently wrote an appreciation of Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, that’s right. An appreciation. If you haven’t read it, you can click here to check it out. Social media responses via Twitter and Facebook were largely supportive, but there was the occasional digital guffaw that someone dare have the temerity to stick up for what is remembered as a weak edition of D&D.
But I was mainly glad to see that most readers were supportive of this edition. Heck, even famed roleplaying talking head Matt Colville has extolled the virtues of Fourth Edition on his YouTube channel.
D&D 4e produced some fantastic concepts. Today, I want to highlight seven of my favorite things to come out of the 4e era.
Haters, be warned! I know 4e provokes strong, and mainly negative, feelings for some gamers. In the immortal (sung) words of Princess Elsa, “Let it go.” I’m here to celebrate what I enjoyed about 4th Edition D&D.
Don’t like it? Noted. Want to talk about the seven things you hated about it? I’m sure it would be cathartic for you to write that article somewhere, but we here at Nerds on Earth want to build up, not tear down.
1. Action Economy
The action economy of 4e was brilliant for three primary reasons: the breakdown of actions, action powers, and Action Points.
4e players had four different actions that they could take during a turn; Standard, Move, Minor, and Free actions. Within those actions, the Standard and Move actions allowed variety in their implementation. Standard actions included doing a basic attack (always the worst option), using a standard action power (always the better option), a charge, second wind, or substitute with another Move or Minor actions. Moving allowed players to move full speed, shift away from enemies, run, or substitute for a Minor action.
Standard action powers were the bread and butter of 4e, though. Much like the video games it was based on, every player had powers. From weakest to smallest, they were Standard (could be used infinitely), Encounter (could be used once per encounter), and Daily (once per day). Each one provided all sorts of nifty advantages. P
layers almost never just walked up to an enemy a do a standard attack. Boring! Part of the paralysis players had when conducting combat in 4e was the fact that players had many things to choose from and they were all pretty darn awesome.
As if having a bunch of choices wasn’t an awesome option, players also got Action Points. Action Points could be used to take a single extra action on your turn. Players started with one Action Point per day, but DMs could award additional Action Points to PCs who conducted acts of bravery or adventuring. While only one Action Point could be used per encounter, it gave players the incentive to be bold, roleplay, or otherwise be courageous in play.
2. Class Roles
Almost any edition of any roleplaying game assumes that different players within a group will be performing different tasks. As a Sociology teacher, I’m always reminding my students that stratification systems in almost any grouping in society is common because they ensure the proper function of groups. Gaming groups are no different, and Fourth Edition D&D baked the concept right into the mold. Generally speaking there were four different roles that every player class fell into for Fourth Edition. They are:
- Leader – responsible for healing and buffing players, giving out favorable targeting conditions to enemies for easy targeting (ex. Bard, Cleric, Warlord)
- Defender – frontline combatant tasked with “tanking” and “aggro”; calling attention to themselves in battle (ex. Fighter, Paladin, War Mage)
- Striker – whip a#$, deal boat loads of damage with superior speed and strength (ex. Avenger, Blackguard, Ranger, Rogue)
- Controller – crowd control through buffs, creating difficult terrain, inflicting conditions, moving enemies, etc. (ex. Druid, Warlock, Wizard)
These roles/jobs weren’t a caste system, per se because they didn’t necessarily restrict your player from contributing in other ways. Rather, the roles gave guidelines for players to assist their teammates during battles. There were many subclasses in 4e that could give you the flavor of a couple of roles at once.
There’s no denying that 4e was a very combat oriented system that relied heavily on tactics. Successful parties paid careful attention to have at least one of each of these roles to navigate the various encounters. It was a well-designed and incredibly balanced system that worked beautifully if your party took the time and effort to ensure every role was filled.
Minions are such a deceptively simple, yet effective concept that I’m frankly surprised that it wasn’t immediately baked into Fifth Edition. Minions basically amounted to disposable cannon fodder. Minions had all of 1 HP and could be taken out with a single blow.
Though not formidable, they represented the waves of henchmen meant to overwhelm the heroes in any dungeon in D&D. They could be pesky rascals that players would need to devote precious resources on when there was usually larger/stronger fare in the room.
Minions weren’t pushovers, though. Minions never took damage on a missed attack, even if the stat for a particular attack says that an enemy would on a miss. Players using a class that could use an ability that hit without rolling, which are generally seen as weak abilities fighting normal monsters, were now stars because they could take out these pesky little creatures with impunity.
Many DMs (myself included) would also introduce two-hit minions to give the token frontliners a little more umph and to frustrate the expectations of players. DMs that came from 4e were also quick to house rule minions into their 5e games, where the concept was inexplicably absent at launch.
4. Tactical Combat
One of the biggest criticisms of Fourth Edition D&D was that it was essentially a miniatures wargame. I’m certainly not going to argue for or against such a notion, but there’s no denying that tactical combat was an essential part of what made 4e different from other editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Having a battle mat or map was necessary. It really was hard to do theater of the mind for 4e because of this battle focus, but there were several products like the Monster Vault box sets that came with die cast cardboard monster tokens that worked perfectly well for mapped combat.
Part of the fun for players of 4e was cracking the tactical code for a particular encounter. PCs and the Monsters/NPCs they were fighting were all using tactical combat. Almost all of the adventurers, and the encounters therein, heavily planned and emphasized using strategies to go after the PCs.
DMs were offered a plethora of advice on how to run encounters, and were often directed to use countermeasures. More dangerous monsters almost always had special abilities that triggered when they reached their bloodied status (half hit points).
This focus on tactical combat also heavily contributed to the combat slog of 4e too. However, it was a fun way to approach the game for all of us coming from the CRPG world. 4e is often derided as a WoW knockoff, but it’s really the tabletop version of the CRPGs D&D produced throughout the years like Baldur’s Gate, Torment, or Neverwinter Nights. For CRPG players like me, 4e was intuitive and familiar… and it got me (and many other video gamers) into tabletop games!
5. Skill Challenges
Another cool concept for Fourth Edition I loved was the concept of a skill challenge. Essentially, skill challenges were a series of skill checks by the entire group. The amount of successes by the group would determine failure or success of the particular skill challenge.
When presented with a particular dilemma, players would determine what skills to use or the DM may give them a nudge towards certain skills if specifically outlined in the module or encounter, which they almost always were provided. DMs were also encouraged to allow players to come up with their own skill uses within reason. I mean, you can’t diplomatically negotiate with a falling wall, though I’m sure an obnoxious bard would try (but aren’t all bards essentially obnoxious these days?).
Skill challenges were cool ways to mechanically deal with traps, difficult negotiations, or basic adventuring throughout a game. When done correctly, skill challenges could ratchet up the tension of dungeoneering in a game. Note that I said when done right. Often skill challenges were used as little more than glorified skill checks without serving a larger purpose.
DMs had to really prepare for good skill challenges that thoughtfully used their player’s skills. Great skill challenges made every roll count. Success or failure on a particular check should have added tension or given advantage to the other PCs and surroundings. By offering benefits, twists, and punishments for failing and succeeding, skill challenges could offer a bit of spice to the proceedings.
6. D&D Insider (DDI)
Ask almost anyone playing D&D at the time when Fourth Edition launched, there was great promise by Wizards of the Coast to provide a robust set of online tools for players and DMs alike. The reality of this promise ended up being one of the greatest disappoints of Fourth Edition. While Wizards never quite gave the fans what they promised, Dungeon and Dragon Insider was absolutely essential for players and DMs alike.
DDI provided everything a player would need or want for Fourth Edition. The online tools included a character builder, exclusive online content for players and DMs, and a monster vault where DMs could retool and reskin monsters with a click of a few buttons. The character builder alone was worth the price of admission for players.
There were a ton of options in Fourth Edition, and players may not have all of the information in front of them as they were spread across many books. Character creation was a bear for 4e. Having a simple digital tool like DDI was supremely helpful for everyone.
7. Encounters Program
Before the joys of Adventurers League (note the sarcasm), there was the D&D Encounters Program. Encounters was a public play program run by a local game store where players could come and participate in a weekly adventure.
Adventures were broken up into seasons, ranging from 8-12 or so sessions apiece. Each week, players could show up and participate in that week’s episode. Players could make their own characters or use one of the pre-generated characters the DM would have.
Encounters very much operated like a season of a television show. The various seasons gave everyone a flavor of what D&D had to offer. Some were set in the Forgotten Realms, others in Dark Sun, while many were set in the default setting for 4e: Nentir Vale. Yes, that’s right. D&D wasn’t always defaulted to the Forgotten Realms! Imagine that!
The purpose of the Encounters program was to get folks to try D&D. The sessions were set up so that each of the usual five encounters in each session would demonstrate a different facet of the game. It’s what got me involved in D&D after years of flirting with the idea. Some of my best friends I met through this program. It definitely had a more open and less draconian feel than 5e’s Adventurers League, with its persnickety and rigid rules. Encounters was a fun, rewarding experience for me. Without it, I would not be in the hobby today!
So what did you love about 4e? Pop on over to our Character Sheets Facebook group and let us know in the comments to this post, or start a threat of your own!