• Killing 4E and Taking Its Stuff

    Coming Home to D&D

    It’s no secret that I like D&D 5E. I mean, I really, really like it. I had stated at the time 4E came out that I wanted the new edition to be basically a D&D version of Star Wars Saga Edition, and while I would have liked that, I actually like 5E better in almost every way. It’s not perfect, probably no system can be, but it is still mighty good. Had 5E been what was released in 2008, I am pretty certain there would not have been the Edition Wars, and probably no Pathfinder Roleplaying Game either, for better or worse.

    It’s also no secret that I disliked D&D 4e. I mean, I really, really disliked it. All of that said, mechanically and conceptually, there is a fair amount of “the good bits” of 4E still lurking in 5E, maybe more than some people would like to admit. Just as the doom of 4E was foretold in the latter days of 3.5, the doom of 5E was foretold in the latter days of 4E. The only difference is that in the latter days of 4E, a lot fewer people were paying attention, myself included.

    I freely admit that I completely ignored the playtest. I am one of those people who felt they’d been “fired as a fan” by WotC, and as such, I simply let them go their own way while I went mine. I was, if not entirely happy with Pathfinder, at least comfortable enough to be getting on, and that worked. (My attempts to move to other systems such as Savage Worlds notwithstanding.) So I missed the “Essentials” phase of 4E, which is where the shifts that led to 5E began, and more importantly I missed the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which seems to be where the real sea-change had finally appeared.

    NCG is thoroughly a 4E book, make no mistake, with all the random disassociated powers and dubstep-colored explodey art you would expect from such a thing. But it also includes campaign-specific Character Themes (which would become 5E‘s Backgrounds) and a strong emphasis on long-term story and away from a long string of perfectly-balanced set piece encounters. In the entire book, there is not a single battle-map to be found. Really, with just a few cosmetic changes in art design and tone (and, y’know, tossing out the 4E mechanical artifacts), NCG is practically a 5E book already.

    (Also, if you intend to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the 5E Starter Set, it makes a great long-term campaign sourcebook. I’m not using it straight for my own campaign, preferring my own homebrew to the thrice-exploded Forgotten Realms, but I am liberally raiding it for good bits.)

    Looting the Body

    So, now that 4E is a smoking crater safely behind us, what exactly did 5E take from it, and what is there still worth the taking?

    Well, as mentioned, Backgrounds are an implementation of 4E‘s Character Themes, providing a small mechanical benefit for a character’s origin. They call it a “feature” instead of a “power,” which is a welcome name change in my opinion– one of the worst things about 4E was the whole “ADEU” (At-Will/Daily/Encounter/Utility Power) framework, which led to the whole “I’ve used up all my powers, I guess I’ll just attack” malaise that made 4E combat such a tedious grind. [1]

    Of course, if you really look at it, the ADEU model is still there. Spell slots are “Daily Powers,” always have been. Any class feature that is expended and recovered after “a short or long rest” is an “Encounter Power” by a different name, and so forth. But it’s heavily buried and disguised, to keep people from staring at their power cards and thinking of them as “These are the things I can do.”

    What I like about these things being called “features” instead of being called “powers” is that they blend in. They become part of your character’s background, an attribute they have just like their class or race, something they can go to if desired, but not their defining thing. “Power” implies that it’s something you do– an action you would take, probably in combat. “Feature” is just something you have that other people might not. And as a “feature,” there’s no minimum power level it has to have in order to feel justified. Rogues and Bards get to double their proficiency bonus for certain things, due to their Expertise. Calling that a “power” seems pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? But yes, it’s certainly a “feature.”

    Here There Be Monsters

    The one thing I really liked in 4E as presented, was the way it handled monsters. The math was forever being reshuffled, alas, but in principle at least there was a basic template for what the approximate stats of a monster should be for a given role at a given threat level, which you could then customize with certain signature abilities. A CR 1 kobold archer and a CR 1 goblin archer had almost the same stat block, except that kobolds where “shifty” (which enabled them to have extra movement) while goblins… uh… did something goblinish that I forget off the top of my head.

    I used this to great effect in my one actual attempt to run 4E by having 1st level PCs attacked by a swarm of sea-devils (which were mechanically re-skinned kobolds with the blood frenzy racial feature) supported by harpies (the same kobolds with flight and luring song).

    Does 5E share this flexibility? Well, the official verdict is still out until the DMG is released and its chapter on monster creation devoured by the masses. However, based just on what’s in the Monster Manual, I’m going to say “Yes.” For my Silver Coast game I have already created a goblin shaman by taking the Acolyte on p. 342, making him size Small and giving him the Nimble Escape racial feature, and created an undead barbarian king (spoiler, my players, there’s one of those floating around!) by adding some barbarian class features to a wight.

    5E doesn’t have Minion rules per se, but it doesn’t really need them, either. To change the danger level of a given creature, the easiest way is to tweak its hit points. A grovelly swarm of kobold bootlickers might have only 2 hit points each, but their boss is a big (reptile) dog, having a whole 10. He’s still CR 1/8 just like the rest of them, but he’s a lot less likely to be one-punched, even by a PC. If you want a really tough kobold? Take the CR 5 Gladiator on p. 346, make him size Small, give him Sunlight Sensitivity and Pack Tactics. Even the party fighter will notice when a kobold spears him for 2d8+4 damage.

    Certainly, any game system can do re-skinning and most of them do to at least some extent. But 5E, like 4E before it, has it “baked in” to the monster design ethos in a way that 3.x/Pathfinder didn’t, and it really does make the DM’s life much, much easier. There aren’t different types of hit dice based on what genus your monster comes from (undead get d12, fey get d6, or whatever the numbers were, I forget now), you don’t have to do a lot of agonizing about whether swapping a power will shoot the CR way out of your encounter budget, etc. [2]

    What Say Ye?

    What do you think? What was good about 4E that’s worth salvaging in 5E? How are the systems similar? Different? I’m very curious to hear with other gamers have to say on the topic.

    -The Gneech

    [1] It’s ironic, 4E actually had a brilliant set of mechanics for off-the-cuff stunts, in the form of the famous “Page 42,” but in practice it seems most people rarely used it, instead spending the whole combat trying to figure out which power to use this turn. But it’s all about presentation: players’ activities are molded by what the rules tell them. Thus, for maximum player creativity, you need to have minimum rules.

    [2] With bounded accuracy, the impact of CR is greatly diminished anyway. Depending on the skill of the players and the whims of the dice, lower-level baddies can still be a problem, while higher-level baddies can unexpectedly be a pushover. A surprise round, a good initiative roll, and the number of foes you’re facing are much bigger factors in how any given fight will play out than the individual CR and stats of a single opponent, generally speaking.

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