2009 Retrospective on 4e: The Reality of the Relationship

2009 was the year I reentered the world of gaming in full force. During law school I kept an interest, but played pencil and paper RPGs infrequently, and only out of town. I eagerly followed and consumed all 4e materials. I applauded its newfound sense of balance and streamlined system for enhanced ease of play.

Then, I played it. Entering two games at paragon tier, I got to examine the system. It’s been fun. With streamlined simplicity it has given real number crunchers enough to min-max (though they lament the broken combos of yore) and the casual gamer the means to compete without being forced to spend too much time. For me though, some aspects of 4E stand out as ugly warts on a smooth and well conceived gaming experience. So now, the honeymoon with 4e is over. 4e and I spent our days in bed cooing softly in one another’s ear, and now it’s time to take stock of the situation. It’s time to codify my biggest gripes about 4e.

Forgettable Bonuses

Way back when the PHB came out, I said that the Cleric class pissed me off because a lot of what it did was give +1 bonuses to PC X for Trait Y. Well, having played in Paragon tier, it’s confirmed: these sort of bonuses are a total pain in the ass. We have a sophisticated gaming set up with lots of visible trackers and a lot of players that know both their characters and the rules, but these sorts of things just slip through the cracks. Really, this sort of minor static boon is a nightmare for tabletop play and just serve to make people think, “gee this would be a heck of a lot easier on a computer.” THAT is exactly the wrong thought to provoke during a tabletop game.

Condition Tracking Headaches

It seems like once an adventure we end up with the ‘colorful tower’ monster. We use colored tokens beneath miniatures to track the various conditions in combat, but it gets truly ridiculous when you have a marked, bloodied, censured, oathed, dazed, immobilized, quarried, cursed, shrouded x4 monster. The whole mess blurs together into one rainbow of plastic teetering over the battlefield. The individual mechanics were, and still are, inspired on a class by class basis, but the sum total is just a huge mess and also leads to the “easer on a computer” conundrum.

Get Hit, Lose Your Shit

For us, the 3e combat paradigm revolved around insta-kill in combat. Spell casters had a few “save or lose” type spells and it was a matter of stopping enemy salvos and making your own succeed. After these nukes were set off then it boiled down to damage. It was cruel, often unfair, but it led to a sort of accepted reality that most groups I played with absorbed and ran with. 4e is supposed to be kinder, gentler and more player-friendly. I think that is good. However, they kept a whole bunch of “fun-killers”: dazed, stunned, and dominated come to mind as the primary offenders. These results aren’t save or die, but they result in players losing the ability to take actions or limiting their ability to make choice; the heart of role-playing. Paragon tier is littered with monsters that have these powers, and while the specifics vary the end result is this: it takes away the fun part of the game. You patiently wait your turn, but then something happens, and your moment to shine is denied to you! It’s completely wrong for the 4e play paradigm but these rules are hardwired into the system.


4e represents a paradigm shift in the right direction, but some of the nuts and bolts decisions really irk me. I play 4e once a week so it is important to point out I still thoroughly enjoy the game. However, some of these issues seem like elementary and predictable problems. Their persistence and inclusion baffle me. Do others play experiences mirror my own? Am I too harsh? Have different playgroups made “patches” to address these concerns? I’m always interested in feedback.


  1. I’ll tell you this: condition tracking is the biggest pain in my ass about the system, but I’ve solved it via my laptop and the best (for me) software I’ve found for running battles.

    Now condition tracking is an afterthought and everything moves faster. I really can’t recommend this program enough.

    .-= newbiedm´s last blog ..The best 4e experience yet =-.

  2. I agree with you so much on dazed and stunned. I hate Dazed and Stunned. Whenever I see “dazed, save ends” on something I will pretty immediately swap it out with some other ability, because as a DM dazed and stunned are a drag. Action Denial is huge, especially in the epic tier, where everything seems like it dazes you or stuns you, and it sucks. It drags out fights, it makes players stand around doing little or nothing while the monster gets to dance around. It makes otherwise mobile, dynamic fights into grinds.
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Skill Rituals: Comprehensive Rules =-.

  3. @newbiedm – with the cost of the books, the minis and the other accoutrements, it seems that the cost/bar is raised further. I’m wondering with the advent of the eReaders (which can be rooted and have apps installed) and the smartphones, if we won’t see laptops be replaced by devices that younger generations will have with them already? Perhaps the need for computing power at the tabletop has come before the solution is widely available?

    @TheMainEvent – I’m curious why the effort has gone towards marking the mini instead of some sort of character sheet tracking/monster card tracking. There are, from what I see, a lot of cards on powers and such… why isn’t there a boardgame-type “status indicator” for each player that they could track their conditions (and bonuses) on, perhaps with cards/chits, and something similar for a DM to use.
    .-= Chgowiz´s last blog ..A look at sales =-.

  4. @chgwiz I playtested an app for the iphone with this same exact purpose in mind, but keep coming back to my laptop.

    Although as games keep “progressing” or evolving, the pen & paper aspect of games keeps getting more and more blurry and mixed in with tons of “made in china” accessories that make just using your imagination too difficult, if not downright impossible.
    .-= newbiedm´s last blog ..The best 4e experience yet =-.

  5. @newbiedm – what do you think is the solution? I don’t think the inclusion of technology will stop, nor do I see the more popular D&D systems reducing their complexity.

    I can’t see technology ever really replacing imagination until we have holographic type of systems (may we live that long to see that!) or some sort of immersive system that really replaces what we can imagine.
    .-= Chgowiz´s last blog ..A look at sales =-.

  6. @chgowiz: The true solution? Let the market decide. It almost falls hand in hand with your blog posting today of OSR market share.

    Let people decide what they are willing to play at their table, and everything will sort itself out. I’m curious for example at the reception the Dragon Age game will receive. Boxed set, no minis, d6 based, sounds like something simple and easy to get into. Let’s see what the market decides.

    Although I do feel RPG companies do a horribly piss poor job of marketing their products to the people that aren’t already in the hobby in one way or another.
    .-= newbiedm´s last blog ..The best 4e experience yet =-.

  7. @Chgowiz -

    As far as marking the mini vs a tracking sheet of some sort, the biggest reason is to keep it clear to the players (or DM, in the case of players) that the character/monster is under that condition.

    Otherwise, you get a lot of times where, say, the Rogue will go to attack some random monster, despite the monster beside him being dazed (and thus allowing sneak attacks), and the only real way to eliminate that is to announce what creature is still under what condition at the beginning of each round.

    The visual representation on the table makes it easy to tell at a glance.
    .-= Graham´s last blog ..Wherein CAB Pretends to be a Professional of Sorts =-.

  8. I think DMs and Players alike would love to get rid of daze or stun. They can trivialize things on both sides of the screen. I’m not so sure what you would replace them with, but I would be perfectly happy if they went away.

    That said, its a moot point to even bring it up. WOTC’s not going to errata out Stun and Daze. It’s part of 4e. In seven years or so we might see a new system that’s a more streamlined version of 4e that removes such things, but for now, there we are. I suppose they could be houseruled out. Daze loses a minor action, results in -2 to attacks, and grants combat advantage. Stun might to the same thing as a daze.

    Anyway, one of the reasons I don’t really get into my problems with 4e is that there isn’t much anyone can do about them at this point.
    .-= Mike Shea´s last blog ..Monster Optimization: Ghouls and Deathlock Wights =-.

  9. TheMainEvent says:

    @Chgowiz: Graham hit the nail on the head. Most of the mentioned conditions figure into a monster’s status seriously enough that they will affect player decision-making. Moreover, PCs conditions require the same attention from other PCs and the DM. The crux of the problem is that each combatants conditions matter to each and every combatant (monsters and players alike). We’ve tried putting them up on a dry erase board too, but the DM is already sorta strained (time wise) to keep things going smoothly and having players run to the white board with status changes seems a bit chaotic.

    I begin to wonder if with some damaging conditions (10/save ends) if its just preferable to eliminate the condition and have it do its average lingering damage as a flat bonus? Their are some timing elements that cause balance concerns (more damage up front, etc.), but if the whole thing isn’t being done properly anyway these may be forgivable.

  10. TheMainEvent says:

    @Mike Shea: You chimed in just as I finished my last comment, so here goes. I don’t think its worth anyone’s time to ‘change’ the rules as written with WotC, you’re absolutely right. However, I do think that if it seems like there’s a problem with the rule people should consider fixing it on their own. Can you convert the attacks to a damage number? Are there other “more fun” powers and effects that can be swapped in without upsetting the Challenge Rating? Can you “strip” the power from the monster for a flat change to the CR? I just don’t accept that Players and DMs need to choose between making a ton of monsters and powers unusable or having less fun at the play table. I think that this problem got a lot of feedback really fast, so its not just me, and that there’s enough smart people out there to suggest some viable solutions to suck it up and be stunned or don’t use those monsters at all….

  11. I agree very much with these, although I also think that there’s simple ways around it. For the most part, the answer is letting the players use some mechanism to keep track of things. Here’s my recommendations:

    Poker chips or some other such thing on a “boost” card would be great to solve the Cleric issue. Make a chart of all the positive effects that your buffer is capable of dishing out, and then use markers to mark them on a special “status card”.

    As far as the “rainbow effect” goes, the only markers you actually need to be putting on monsters are marks. Hunter’s Quarry, Warlock Curse, Oath of Enmity, Avenger Censure, Assassin’s Shroud…these are all one-enemy things, and they don’t cancel each other out. So you don’t need to worry about tracking it on the monster. Have the players track, instead, which monster they’ve applied which effects to. The ranger tracks which enemy is the subject of his Hunter’s Quarry, the Avenger tracks which enemy he’s sworn his Oath against, and which one is under his censure (often one and the same), and so forth.

    As far as tracking effects like “immobilized”, mention them, write them down, and if needed, remind the players which monsters are suffering them. Player memory will be good enough to keep track of them, especially if inflicting these conditions is a part of their strategy. Alternatively, my DM has used a wipe-off battlegrid, which is actually pretty spiffy. He can write and then erase at will. So, for instance, maybe he outlines immobilized enemies with a red marker. Alternatively, use one generic marker to indicate that the monster is under a status effect. Since combat advantage (as Graham mentions) is the biggest concern here, that takes care of that. If they need to remember what specific effect it is, they ask around. That boils it down to two markers on a monster: the mark and the generic “status effect” marker. That ought to help some.

    As far as Dazed/Stunned go…My DM had an interesting fix here. It didn’t focus around denying actions, but rather making you feel beat-up. He stole the “condition track” from Star Wars SAGA, although it wasn’t a perfect fix. Anyhow, I’d recommend that, instead of action denial, you make some sort of penalty. Might even be worthwhile to incorporate “weakened” as part of it.
    .-= Andy´s last blog ..Breakin’ Down the Christmas Tree, Part 1 =-.

  12. I really like that “one marker” idea. I do initiative with cards set out on the table in a row and a turn marker, so I can just put the status conditions on the cards.

  13. @Andy -

    As far as tracking effects like “immobilized”, mention them, write them down, and if needed, remind the players which monsters are suffering them. Player memory will be good enough to keep track of them, especially if inflicting these conditions is a part of their strategy.

    You haven’t played with some of the players I have…

    In my experience, relying on player memory for incidental conditions equates to reminding them about them every second turn.

    Hell, some players have a hard time remembering to roll a save versus the fact they themselves are on fire!

    If your group can do it, go for it. But this is by no means a given.

    Since combat advantage (as Graham mentions) is the biggest concern here, that takes care of that. If they need to remember what specific effect it is, they ask around.

    Actually, while CA is the most common, it isn’t always the most important. There are powers that do more if a target is immobilised, or if a target is taking ongoing fire damage. There are powers and items that transfer conditions (some or all) from one creature to another.

    Let’s say a monster is immobilised, bloodied, grabbed, taking ongoing 5 fire, ongoind 10 necrotic, and deaf, all with Save Ends (except Bloodied, of course). All of these were activated at least one round ago, and were active on my last turn, but he rolled a bunch of saving throws since then. At least one is still active, as the marker is still on him, but I don’t remember which of the 5 saving throws succeeded (if any). My Rogue is at 1hp and needs to run by him to get to the cleric. This would be deadly, but I have an ability that lets me not provoke OAs from immobilised enemies.

    The only way to know if I can get by is to ask the DM.

    Now what if we got really lucky with a series of area attacks, and there are 5 enemies that I need to get by, all of which are under these statuses?

    It has been my experience that, at higher levels, if there isn’t a quick way to tell at a glance just what is statuses a monster is under, finding out becomes an oft-repeated series of “Okay, so what’s on Monster 1? Monster 2? Monster 3? Wait, Monster 1 was taking ongoing damage, right?”
    .-= Graham´s last blog ..Wherein CAB Pretends to be a Professional of Sorts =-.

  14. anarkeith says:

    Condition and buff tracking are a pain. For my homebrew rules, I narrowed the conditions and buffs available and created cards for each. The card states the effect, and instructs the player to turn the card over at the end of their turn to determine whether the effect continues into the next turn. On the back of the card is the “save” info. Mostly I’ve just used the 55/45 split that WotC have adopted for 4e. The big difference is that most of the effects in my game end promptly. (In my rules, casters have more at-will type spells, so they can re-apply conditions or buffs as necessary.)

    The end result is easier tracking due to shorter durations and the card mechanic. Giving casters ongoing duties if they’re acting as “controllers”, seems like a good way to keep them involved, and forces them to make tactical choices (i.e., keep that troll slowed, or blast him with an acid arrow?) Buffs tend to work the same way.

  15. I wholeheartedly agree on all your conclusions and might add that on paragon tier, zones and auras tend to stack up in non-trivial ways as well, making the dry erase battlemat we use a rainbow of red walls of fire, green fear auras and black auras where the necromancer’s minions gain a +1 to fortitude defense. Added with some creative terrain (inspired by the generally brilliant DMG2) and the aforementioned condition and bonus tracking, paragon tier combat has really become a chore to DM; few encounters take less than two hours to play.

    This frustration has actually made me shell out more than $100 for the new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay from Fantasy Flight games. I haven’t played it yet, but the promise of all effects and abilities being shown on actual cards in the game makes me a little giggly when comparing with our last D&D session. After a few strange “you gain +2 to all saves for as long as you are adjacent to an enemy against whom you have combat advantage” and the like from our warlord, the jokes went “retrain one skill to gain the class benefit of one class from the player sitting on your right. Miss: all players switch characters one step to the left. Aftereffect: no soda for you.”

    Paragon tier D&D is actually so complicated that it inspired me to try and make a game of my own that I call Wild Cards, a kind of mix between D&D, WHFRP and board games like Descent. I’ll see if a playable version ever sees light of day but until then, I’ll probably stick to playing D&D on lvl 1-10, it’s what has been working best for the other editions as well.

    Oh, btw, don’t get me started on stunned and dominated. Why remove everything else that makes the game uninteresting like save-or-die and the wizard’s 15 minute work day and keep those killjoys? Dominated could be solved so that the character makes a standard action on the dominating creature’s turn, and is Dazed during his own turn and Stunned should be flat out removed or replaced by Dazed + Weakened or something like that.
    .-= Ulmus´s last blog ..WordPress 2.9.1 =-.

  16. Mike Kenyon says:

    Over the holidays, I ran my Third Annual Christmas D&D Adventure with my friends back home. They all rolled level 7 characters and I had an adventure I’ve been working on for the past three months. In our six hour gaming session, we finished less than half of it! The combats took soooo long, largely due to the forgettable bonuses, the multiple contingencies (+2 to AC if today is Thursday and you’re playing a martial class), and how much information is required.

    Next year, I’ll present a much simpler game, like Spirit of the Century or the Serenity RPG. Still tons of fun, and possible to run without a computer.

  17. Capt_Poco says:

    Here is what I do: I took out every monster ability which causes a condition. Sometimes this meant that a monster was rendered virtually worthless, in which case I scrapped it. To fill in the gap, I had to reflavor a bunch of monsters, but I think it was worth it.

    Now the only conditions to keep track of are the ones PCs inflict. Of course, it is the PC’s responsibility to keep track of these. If you don’t keep track of an ability that you’ve inflicted, then it goes away. This, I’ve found, is a great motivator for the PCs!

    Likewise, some abilities are easy to convert into non-bookeeping abilities. Take damage over time, for instance. A saving throw is a 50/50 chance, right? So, in the long run, nobody should take more than 1 round’s worth of effect from the ongoing damage. Catching fire, for example, is usually 5 fire damage a turn (save ends). But its far simpler to just say that the player takes 5 fire damage.

    In the long run, these changes make encounters easier. This can be fixed just by increasing every encounter’s level by one or two.

  18. what bothers me the most is them not fulfilling their promises, look back at the footage from conventions & various previews

    “choice of race will still make a difference after first level” really?

    “choice of race will mean more than just a attribute bonus”
    well… sort off..

    and where the DDI stuff, two years post release now, they’ve removed PDF downloads of the books, no game table, no character visualizer,

    credit where it’s do, the character builder is awesome, too bad the removed the “export to pdf” option,

    DDI is not, The hypertext D20 SRD was WAY better of a resource, trying to find stuff in DDI seems a total headache to me.

  19. adamjford says:

    Definitely agreed on the Compendium. I mean, it’s still damn useful; I’m using it all the time during my weekly online game, but man, there’s gotta be a better interface than that. Being a (web) developer myself, I understand that interfaces and usability is hard, but I hope they revisit it eventually and improve it.

  20. Maybe I’m not game-minded as much as the rest of you, but I have a completely different take on this.

    I can’t imagine playing a fantasy game that doesn’t have some form of domination and/or stunned. Turned to stone, mind control, puppetry, all staples of fantasy.

    If we remove all the conditions and the effects, it becomes a swing/miss/swing/hit/swing game.

    I play online in one game, using MapTool and in my face-to-face game I use MapTool as a character sheet. And we have very little issues. We use paper clips for our conditions. 8 different colours. Green for acid, or poison, or slowed depending on the monsters.

    I think what happened is the game advanced faster then the technology did.

    I am obviously in the minority, but I disagree completely with both points regarding tracking issues and Dominated.

  21. TheMainEvent says:

    @Ulmas: Zones and whatnot I would lump into the conditions grip, though they do deserve specific mention, especially when they’re tagged on moving monsters that moved the zones with them.

    @Pink Rose: You offered the best explanation I can think of for leaving my least favorite conditions, they do have a certain fantasy flair to them. Honestly though, dominated has a magical feel to it, but the others aren’t any more fantasy-based in my mind than they are cinema based (hero is reeling, gets kicked a bunch before storming back). However, I think there are viable alternatives that give this feel/flavor without turn denial. Why not have dominate let the monster look through all non-daily powers and pop one of them on its turn (but letting you keep your turn)? Stunned & Dazed are practically cousins, but why not have them just apply penalties to all actions that gradually get better round to round as you ‘shake it off’ (granted this is another tracking issue).

    @Everyone: Thanks for the feedback, I think there’s a lot of good ideas whirling around!

  22. It’s AOE stunned/dazed that kills a lot of encounters for me.

    A lot of published adventures will force the PC’s into a tiny room with a small group of relatively weak monsters who can spam them with at-will AOE stun/daze effects. What should be a straight-forward meat-grinder becomes a time-sink.

    I agree that it seems rather antithetical to the 4e “experience.”

    The “exceptions” based design is another wart that has become unappealing. You have this core framework of how combat is supposed to work and then all these powers that conditionally modify that framework. It really sucks up a lot of your cognitive abilities to match your power against the current state of the combat area. It becomes a technically challenging process to manage for everyone involved and if you lose even a couple players’ attention; the encounter will practically grind to a halt and that magic circle around the table will break.

    The only effective solution I’ve found is to scale back encounters and increase their number without giving the PCs their “rest” break (another annoying mechanic.. “let’s wait 5 minutes so our encounter powers recharge” … very IC…). For large encounters with big-bad and such, I just filter in the baddies in “waves;” letting them pour into the combat area from elsewhere.

    The condition system isn’t so bad as long as the number of entities in the field is small. But it’s also logarithmic in complexity… which means it doesn’t scale well.

    Well I don’t know if it’s enough for me to sell my 4e gear, but there have been some sessions where I was close. :p
    .-= j_king´s last blog ..I Deleted My Facebook Account =-.

  23. @theeo123 — Get Cute pdf. That will solve your character builder pdf export problem.

  24. I do pretty much the same thing as j_king when it comes to encounters, but with the added wrinkle of using Maptool in an online game.

    Between Maptools token conditions and initiative structure, I don’t have problems tracking conditions, and I encourage my players to track their own stuff. And sometimes we forget, or things get missed, or forgotten, or skipped.

    And I discovered a GREAT way of dealing with it. I DON’T. Forgot about a condition? Oh well, we’ll try to remember next round. PC should have take ongoing damage but I forgot? Big deal, moving on. I make my calls quickly, don’t obsess about the rules, and things move along just fine. Amazingly fine, actually.

    I let it be known that my PC’s have to track their personal conditions themselves, and inform me if something would make a difference, but if I forgot they had +1 AC from some power, and they get hit. They get hit! Hahah, moving along.

    I also find that creating very large encounters with many phases, or even multiple linked encounters played in “real-time” without 5-minute breaks is a much better way of doing 4e adventures. It makes the leader more effective, and forces more resource management.
    .-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..4e Sandboxing =-.

  25. An idea I had for the bloodied condition at least for characters was to get two of the same figs and paint one up as all bloodied. Then when the PC reaches the bloodied condition swap out the figs so that the new one reflects the condition and eliminates using something else that clutters up the game area.

  26. There’s a lot more problems with 4e, of course. The boringness of most of the at-wills, the padded sumo combat model, the fact that monsters are often possessing more interesting powers than the PCs (compare a Hobgoblin Warcaster to a PC of equivalent level!), the straitjacket character design model (called hand-holding by the 4e designers, but what really means is that they make your character not you), and most critically, the lack of that iconic D&D flavor. Dwarves can’t see in the dark, devils (or is it demons now?) are, what, elementals? Liches aren’t really spellcasters, werewolves no longer inflict lycanthropy, fighters can no longer use bows (beyond ranged basic attacks), arcane spellcasters now run around in leather or hide as a matter of course, and magic items utterly suck.