With four games under my belt, along with talking to some of the designers and developers at length, I’m ready to give you my Critical opinion of D&D fourth edition! Of course, this was only a preview, and things could still change, but many of these are pretty core to the system.
- More choices for everyone. Just judging by what you can do at first level, I’m quite looking forward to higher level characters.
- Combat really is more dynamic. More movement around the battlefield, and they managed to do it WITHOUT changing the interesting tactics that existed in 3e. You still get attacked if you withdraw from combat and aren’t careful. You still have to plan your movement around. But there’s more powers and abilities that move around, and more advantages to doing so.
- Diagonal moves are always 1′s rule. Seriously, this might be my favorite change, and one that makes me angry when people say “it’s not hard!” No, it’s not hard to do 1-2-1-2, but it’s ANNOYING, and easy to get wrong. It’s a memory condition that makes it take longer for someone with high movement to take their turn. Good riddance! (Same goes for reach giving opportunity attacks.)
- Combinations and emergent properties. I feel like in 3.x, the powerful combinations came from abusing feat/class combinations, often by ignoring the spirit of the rule. In 4e, the way the different powers in different classes interact gives a good amount of synergy and creates powerful combinations on purpose. As a really minor example, Danny used a power to push a goblin back into a room. This put the goblin within range of the other goblins so that the Wizard could use sleep on all of them. There’s nothing devastating about that combo, but it felt really, really fun, and made me want to seek out more of those situations.
- Durations are so much better now. I’d be willing to bet I haven’t played a game of D&D 3e where someone didn’t ask once per combat, “How many rounds do you think it’s been since I cast this?” Don’t tell me it’s the player’s and DM’s job to keep track… that’s just paperwork, and it’s annoying. Last for the day/for the encounter/until saved/one round is much, much cleaner.
- As far as being like the game that the media portrays it as, D&D is a lot closer now. To explain, if you watch a tv show with an evil wizard, you’ll see him firing energy blasts every round, with heroes ducking behind rocks or deflecting them, or being knocked back. Previously in D&D, that didn’t happen… the wizard would talk about re-memorizing his spells, and warriors would just charge it and start wailing on him. D&D 4e gives that experience for the first time.
- Marks and similar mechanics. These are abilities that let you designate a certain foe that has certain effects. This is fine in theory. However, the paladin and fighter’s marks counteract each other, while the ranger’s and warlock’s don’t. Paladin, Fighter, and Ranger can only have one mark at a time, but the Warlock can have many. Ranger and Warlock can only affect the closest enemy, others can only mark certain people. What should be one consistent mechanic not only does a different thing for each class, but acts different in play.
- Easily forgettable bonuses are still in full force. There’s still plenty of “I give you an AC bonus this round”, then “Oh wait, I forgot his AC bonus, it actually misses. Wait, was that this round or last round?”
- The character sheets had a really nicely formatted set of powers BUT there were pieces on the front that I needed that acted like powers. (In fact, in one game, I missed a key ability because it was on the front of my sheet.) I really wanted my “charge attack” to be a power instead of rules elsewhere, my “run” to be a power, my “Second Wind” to be a power, and my “opportunity attack” to be a power. Instead, I became annoyed that I had to flip the sheet over for those things.
- Not sure I like 50/50 saving throws. There are abilities that modify it, but generally, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, it’s going to be 50/50 to shake off an effect.
- The first level pregen character did not have Cure Light Wounds. Is the spell still in? Was it a casualty of finally declaring (rightly) that Hit Points are abstract? Not sure, but I was disappointed at its absence. (Especially with the Wizard still having plenty of classic power names.)
- I don’t like “milestones” and the way action points are given out. I love the new action point rule- so simple and yet an agonizing decision. But the milestone system feels very much like a “patch” on the 15 minute adventuring day, a way to encourage players to keep going by an entirely OOC reward. Then there’s this whole system where APs are restricted to one a combat, and they get reset? There goes some of the interesting management and tense feeling.
- It could just be that I suck at rolling, but first level felt very swingy. Lots of luck on both sides. I don’t think I can judge that fully until I see later levels, though.
- If every DMG came with Mike Mearls to DM for you, everyone would play 4e. He ran by far the most fun session I played, AND looked like he enjoyed every minute he was playing.
- Warlock powers are still hilarious. “I unleash my Curse of the Dark Dream… with bats, snakes, and blood!”
- As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I see nothing to indicate that this edition will be any worse or better for roleplaying than any previous edition of D&D. I will come right out and say that rules can contribute to roleplaying- the two are not independent. But 4e does not change the essential atmosphere of D&D for roleplaying.
- It really is a paradigm shift for D&D in most ways. Some people prefer more simulation in their games, and 4e really isn’t built for it. For me, D&D4e supports the type of play I like. Your mileage may vary, but I keep coming back to one point: there are lots of RPG systems out there that support different styles of play, and if you prefer something that “makes more sense” then I highly suggest checking out one of the many excellent options. For me, I’m going to 4e.