Originally posted on my other blog on this day (August 14th) in 2010, early in the 3.5e v 4e edition war.
A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to play in a 4th edition game of Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. There are some things that are clear improvements, some things that are not improvements but I can see why they did it, and some things that are just bafflingly ill-conceived. What follows is not a complete list of my thoughts on 4e, that would take much too long, but it is a brief catalogue of the sorts of thoughts I'm having.
An Example Of A Thing That Is A Clear Improvement
It may just be that my fighter was built for battlefield control, and everything I picked has some effect to move people around, but combat in 4e is much more dynamic and interesting than in 3.5e, where most fights were just slugging matches, standing in one place and beating on each other until one participant goes down. There are creatures designed specifically to move about and keep the battlefield dynamic, but only if the DM picks those creatures and only if he chooses to use them as designed (rarer than you might think). There are similar creatures in 4e (we fought some frogs that kept grabbing us with their tongues from halfway across the battlefield and pulling us to them), and there are still lots of creatures that do no such thing, but now the power of effective battlefield movement abilities is in the hands of the players, too. This does a lot to make fights refreshingly dynamic.
An Example Of A Thing That Is Not An Improvement But I Can See Why They Did It
In 3.5e, defenses worked like this: You had three kinds of Armor Class (AC), and three kinds of save.
Your regular AC was basically 10 + your armor + your dexterity, and to hit you with a regular physical attack, a foe had to roll a 20-sided die (1d20) + base attack bonus from class + bonus from his weapon + his strength or dexterity. If his attack roll beat your AC, he hit you and proceeded to roll for damage.
Your Touch AC was 10 + your dexterity, for things like spells which bypass armor entirely (and spellcasters correspondingly didn't get weapon boni, so they would roll only 1d20 + base attack bonus from class + strength or dexterity).
The third kind of AC was Flat-Footed, which happens if you're unprepared to defend yourself or duck out of the way, and is only 10 + your armor
The three kinds of save were Will (d20 + your base save from class + wisdom), Reflex (d20 + base save + dexterity), and Fortitude (d20 + base save + constitution). There are some spells and effects you don't even have to hit with, such as gaseous clouds or mind-control, so they called for a save instead. In a save, the attacker's stats determine the difficulty, and the defender rolls. If the defender succeeds, he has resisted or dodged and can avoid some or all of the effect. (This is the source of the old "Jesus Saves. Everyone Else Takes Full Damage." shirt that's been floating around for awhile.)
In 4e, they've changed all that. Now, they've eliminated saves, and you simply have four kinds of defenses: AC (10 + armor), Will (10 + wisdom), Reflex (10 + dexterity), and Fortitude (10 + constitution). An attacker has to roll d20 + some stat + any other boni, and if he succeeds, you take the effect or the damage, and if he misses, you don't. Much simpler. Also makes much less sense.
Consider, as an example, a creature with venomous fangs. In a world that makes sense, this creature needs to hit you, puncture your armor, and then overcome your body's natural resistance. In 3.5e, this was perfectly represented: it had to successfully bite you (overcome your AC, which includes your dexterity and your armor), and then you got a fortitude save. In 4e, it only has to beat your fortitude (in which case it has ignored your armor and your dexterity), your reflexes (and ignore your armor and your constitution), or your AC (and ignore your dexterity and your constitution).
Effectively, they've gone from a very strong simulationist design ethic to a strong gamist one, which is movement in exactly the wrong direction. The rules are disassociated from in-character reasoning. This may be what people mean when they say 4e is more like an MMORPG than like real D&D. I can see why they did this particular thing, insofar as they've streamlined the process, reduced the number of rolls you need to make and numbers you need to keep track of, and generally made it more newbie-friendly. That doesn't make it a good change.
An Example Of A Thing That Is Bafflingly Ill-Conceived
One criticism I come across whenever people who are used to playing 4e switch to 3.5e is that there are a number of effects where, if you get hit and you fail your save, you're just out of the fight for several rounds with no recourse. This is definitely an obstacle to fun, but 4e's attempt at a "solution" is even worse.
In 3.5e, if you get hit by, say, a ghoul, it does damage, and you also make a fortitude save to resist its paralyzing touch. If you fail the save, you are paralyzed (unable to do anything) for 2-5 rounds. The ghoul immediately rolls 1d4 + 1, and then you're just out of the action for that many rounds. This is obviously no fun if it happens to you, you're just sitting out of the action and might as well go make yourself a sammich for several rounds. Undesirable.
In 4e, if you get hit by an attack that paralyzes (if it beats whichever kind of defenses the game deems most relevant), you're similarly paralyzed. Except instead of being for a number of turns determined when you get paralyzed, you roll 1d20 on your turn each round (this is what 4e calls a "save"). If you roll better than a 10, the paralysis ends and you can act on your next turn. If you roll lower than a 10, you try again on your next turn. So the paralysis winds up lasting anywhere from 1 round to until after the combat has ended, depending solely on your d20 and not having anything to do with your character's qualities. The most hale fighter is just as likely to successfully cease to be paralyzed as the sickliest bard. Okay, sure, how long an effect lasts has nothing to do with your character's stats in 3.5e, either, but 4e's "solution" is still a poor excuse for "keeping the player involved".
Several rounds of "Roll to save with no effect on the outcome other than providing the die. Okay, you failed. Next person's turn." is no better than "Okay, go eat a sammich for a number of rounds with no effect on how many", and I don't know why people seem to think it is. It may even be worse, because you don't even get a sammich. It's definitely more frustrating, because at least in 3.5e you know there's a hard cap on how long you're out of the fight, and you know in advance exactly how long you'll be out.
I remembered a better example of a bafflingly ill-conceived change. To wit: in all previous editions of D&D that I'm aware of, there was a two-axis morality/alignment system: one axis was good/neutral/evil, the other was lawful/neutral/chaotic. This allows for nine possibilities (lawful good, good, chaotic good, lawful, neutral, chaotic, lawful evil, evil, chaotic evil). It also has the benefit of being immediately intuitive to almost anyone who encounters it.
4e "simplified" this by reducing it to lawful good, good, unaligned, evil, chaotic evil. But this is one of those instances where more options, because they were arrayed in that sensible grid, is actually easier to deal with and easier to fit a character to. Moreover, they deleted both my favourite alignments (chaotic good and lawful evil), leaving only boring choices. Yes, you can still play a chaotic good or lawful evil character and just call him good, unaligned, or evil, but that just doesn't have the same force to me.
An Example Of A Thing I'm Not Sure Is Good Or Bad
In 3.5e, dedicated spellcasters had a long list of spells to keep track of which were replenished once a day, most melee combatants got to do exactly the same thing every round (with some per-day powers such as, say, the paladin's Smite Evil, or the barbarian's Rage).
In 4e, everybody gets a list of At Will powers (usable as many times as you want), a list of Encounter powers (usable once per fight), and a list of Daily powers (usable once per day). I'm not clear on how spellcasters work now, but it seems to be basically the same story.
In 3.5e, everybody had basically the same role - doing damage to the enemy. They did this in various ways (beating on them with a stick, spells, sneak attack, whatever), and once in a long while you got somebody whose job it was to heal or buff his buddies or debuff the foes, but basically it was all the same task.
In 4e, they've explicitly separated the roles out into Striker, Defender, Controller, et cetera. One guy's job is only to do damage, the next guy's job is only to put the foes where they need to be and keep them from attacking his allies, the third guy's job is to heal, and so on.
So they changed it from everybody doing the same thing in different ways to everybody doing different things the same way. This is a change, but it seems to balance out to neither a positive nor a negative direction.
An Example Of A Thing Where I'm Not Sure Who To Blame
The creatures in this adventure were hard. Particularly some ghouls that clustered way too close in tight quarters that made it nearly impossible to deal with them, although the DM did admit they were supposed to stun one party member at a time and drag them off, which probably would have made the fight oddly easier. We also accidentally skipped over most of the roleplaying component of the adventure and straight to the combat, and it may have been designed with us having some NPC backup in mind, so my experience may not have been working as intended.
So I'm not sure to what extent we experienced this adventure as designed, and I'm not sure how closely this adventure adhered to Wizards of the Coast's design philosophy in the first place. But if we did and it does, then it means WOTC has really embraced the bad encounter philosophy that was rampant in 3.5e but never officially endorsed until now.
In 3.5e, you were supposed to be able to get through something like four or more encounters before you'd expended all your daily resources (such as the wizard's spells) and had to rest for the night. Many DMs wound up, in the interest of providing a "challenge", making all encounters of the sort where you have to use 100% of your daily resources and take an 8-hour rest after each one. This slows down the game to an interminable crawl, among other problems. If WOTC has now embraced this all-insane-challenges-all-the-time idea, that's a bad thing. But I don't have enough information to know whether they have or not.
All in all, the more I think about 4e, the more I think it's a marked step down in quality. All the same, when I consider the idea of playing more, on a visceral level, the prospect of more 3.5e sounds a little daunting and the prospect of more 4e sounds a little fun. So I guess they're doing something right. Unless it's just that I've not yet been exposed to enough 4e to be sick of it and I've played enough 3.5e that it's starting to wear on me, which is plausible.
EDIT: It turned out yes, I simply hadn't been exposed to enough 4e to get sick of it. It only took a couple more sessions to get sick of it; give me 3.5e or nothing henceforth!