Friday, January 3, 2014

Let's Clear Up A Few 4e Myths, Part 2

Howdy. So a while back I had a fairly popular post (here) regarding various myths about 4e. Now don't get me wrong, as readers of my blog know, I am fine with criticism of 4e and/or any other game system. Criticism helps improve things. What I am not a fan of is hyperbolic nonsense. Today I want to tackle a couple more myths that have been aggravating me.

"Every class is the same, AEDU, etc etc etc, blah blah blah"

To anyone that has spent a lot of time playing 4e, I don't really need to explain why this is not the case. Play a Shaman, play a Fighter, play a don't walk away feeling like the same thing just occurred. Why then, is this such an oft-repeated complaint? The so-called "AEDU" structure. Now forget for a moment that Essentials exists, thereby obliterating the argument in and of itself. You will only hear back that, "Well Essentials didn't exist at the beginning." Fair enough. So what is it that propels this argument forward? Why is it so common?

Let's consider for a second classic editions. If you take a look at 1e AD&D, you find that different classes obtain different class features at different levels. A Druid can identify plant types at the 3rd level. At 8th level, Rangers gain some limited Druidic spell ability. At 4th level, the Paladin can call his war horse. These abilities do not resemble one another, and the level at which they occur could be argued as largely arbitrary. I mean, I trust Gygax completely, but if Druids took until the 4th level to identify plants, the book doesn't explode.

Now consider the 4e structure. All it is doing is proving choice points at the same levels. The choices are not the same. Are the utility powers of a 4th level Cleric the same as those of a 4th level Swordmage? Not hardly. The only thing that they have in common...the only thing that is "samey" that they choose an ability at the same level. Likewise, if a Fighter gains a maneuver at level 7 that allows her to swing his sword in a circle, attacking everything adjacent to her, is this the same thing as a Witch choosing a spell? No. Not at all. The only thing in common is that they are both choosing abilities at the same levels.

I imagine that Heinsoo and company thought that this would be a popular "improvement" on the game. It does make it easier to anticipate and remember when new class features and abilities become available. When I play Pathfinder, if I try a new class I am continually looking back to the class description to figure out what I get and when. I admit I am somewhat of a newb, but there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Yet it is the very attempt to organize this sort of thing that gets so much derision! I will never claim to understand it, but the simple fact is that 4e classes do not play the same. They tried to experiment with a more...predictable, I guess is the word...progression of "choice points", and though the choices in no way resemble each other, they got slammed in the process. Oh well.

This leads me to the mother of all 4e myths, the biggest lie of all:

"You can't play 4e without a grid."

You know, sometimes you hear something said so many times, the mind almost wants to start believing it. That might be a quote or something from the novel 1984, I can't recall. What I do know is that the biggest myth about 4e, in my humble opinion, is that it is unplayable without a grid.

I am tempted to say that most folks that espouse this argument have never tried to play it without a grid. The reason this is tempting is because it is probably true. However, having spent some time on the *shudder* WOTC forums, and having seen what constitutes an "argument" on some gaming sites, I realize that I will almost immediately be hit with a, "Oh yeah? My table tried it! And it was a complete disaster!" Fine.

There is no doubt that 4e implicitly and explicitly encourages you to use a battlemap and minis. No argument there. But that isn't to say that you cannot play with only pen, paper, and dice. After all, in the 1st edition DMG, Gygax encourages the use of minis, and from what I understand, he hardly ever used them (although apparently Arneson almost always did). My point here is simply that encouraging is not the same thing as requiring.

Now forget about 4e for a minute. Try if you can to picture yourself back in the old days, a complete virgin to D&D. Do you remember what it was like looking at spell explanations? The varying ranges (in inches), the varying sizes of the areas of effect? How about trying to mentally picture the various types of dragon breaths?

I posit to you the following: there is no power in 4e that is any more or less complicated to adjudicate in gridless play than there is in any other edition of D&D. If you can handle a Stinking Cloud in your mind's eye, you can handle a close blast 3. Sorry; its just a fact.

So where on earth does this argument come from, besides the fact that grid rules are in the book? Well, I can only speculate, but I think part of it might be that instead of only the spellcasters having explicit abilities that deal with areas of effect, pushing, sliding, etc, it is also the martial types. Part of it is the published adventures, especially the early ones. There is also for some reason a strong desire in some players for perfect adjudication of distances...but any DM that has ever run classic editions in a mapless style knows that it is ok to handwave some things, or to otherwise approximate. "Are you 25 or 30 feet from the Goblin? Eh, you are close enough to move up to it and attack." Did the world end? No, no it didn't.

Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that mapless play is ideal for a lot of encounters. Hell, there are myriad classic edition encounters that I would never DREAM of attempting without some sort of visual aid (see the entry to the Temple of Tharizdun). What I am saying is that the alleged inability of 4e to be played without a map has been so grossly exaggerated that many DMs accept it as reality without having ever even tried to run an encounter without a grid.

Its really the subject of another blog post to provide tips and tricks, benefits and drawbacks, etc of gridless play, but I will say this: try a random encounter. Nothing special...say the party is on the way from point A to point B, there is a clearing in the woods and a few Orcs attack. They flee after the first or second death. I think you will see that this huge worry about distances and everything is really not so bad in play. It changes from a player counting the squares to an enemy to a DM saying, "You are about 20 feet away". It changes from a player counting how many Orcs can get caught in a blast to the DM saying, "Eh, you can get three of them."

None of this is going to shock or surprise many experienced DMs, as a lot of you out there already switch between maps and mapless play when it fits your game anyways. Hell, I am almost ashamed to have to explain this. For some reason, this myth was allowed to gain traction; all I can do is try my best to discount it. If you have DMed any classic editions without maps and minis, you have doubtless already experienced the worst that 4e can throw at you.

So that is what I have for you today. Sometime down the line I might go into more detail about how mixing gridless 4e encounters into your campaign can be a benefit. Just remember that the best way to learn anything, as a DM, is to run games. Try things. Experiment. Don't take someone else's word for it. Don't assume things. Let your own experience be your guide.


  1. I pretty much missed out on 4E completely, jumping to Pathfinder. I'd like to try it with my group but several players are rabidly anti-4E, mostly due to buying in to all the myths you've noted. In the tiny bit of 4E I did get to play I found that what made combat drag was the high hit points of monsters--but that's easily fixed.

    1. Thanks for the post! Regarding high numbers of hit points: never underestimate the power of Minions (a monster type in 4e that are of varying "level" but always have only 1 hit point). They have the ability to successfully engage and harm PCs of all level, but as they die from only one hit, they are very easy to run and friendly to DMs, especially in gridless play. I find that when I DM classic editions, and I have 1 HD monsters, I typically treat them as going down with one hit anyways. If a Wizard throws a dagger for 1 hp against the Kobold, I'm really happier not fiddling with it and just having the Kobold die. If that sort of thing is in any way familiar/pleasing to you, you will love Minions.

      Also regarding hit points, I agree that a lot of monsters are bloated, so for my own games I came up with a unified formula for all monsters to use. (Level x 8) + 20 is what I settled on. If anyone is curious here is the original post about it:

      Like I say above, there is a lot of fair criticism of the game. I just am trying to dispel the stuff that isn't true, at least in my experience. Thanks again for the post!

    2. Let me start this comment with an "I like 4th Edition disclaimer." I've GM'd it for the last three years (breaking only for my newborns) and as a system it has a lot of cool things going for it...

      But.. I do understand the "many classes feel same-y" argument. I've been trying to find the forum thread (unsuccessfully), but I did a little comparative analysis on several powers differentiated by class/role and found there is definitely a pattern in the design that makes some classes play very similarly, partly due to the way the roles are defined.

      This is from memory and I don't have the books in front of me, but I took a look at At-Wills and Encounters in the Heroic tier for several classes. What I found was something like this:

      Fighter (Defender) : 1[W] + mark (sometimes push/slide)
      Wizard (Controller): 1[W] + (slide or movement condition)
      Bard/Warlord (Leader): 1[W] (or X point damage) + allay movement

      In several instances, I even found classes with different roles where the powers granted at the same levels were effectively the same, except instead of a slide, it was a push or pull, or other movement condition.

      If you were to file off the serial numbers (power names) and put them side by side, they differed only by the direction movement effect and you probably wouldn't be able to name which class or even role they were intended for.

      Now, there are some classes that played differently, but if you look through the original Player's Handbook (not PH2, PH3), there were a lot of powers in the Heroic tier that had only minor differences and because classes were slotted into roles, two different classes of the same role often shared a lot of commonalities in their tactical play.

      An experienced 4e player might counter with "But a slide is not a push! A slide has a whole different tactical effect" or similar. This is true, but for the new player, especially in a group where they haven't figured out the power "combos" between their different classes to help one another out, these two effects feel same-y.

      This is definitely more true for the Heroic tier and the more base classes, but low level play is the experience that most players get in their first run through 4th edition, so this complaint is understandable.

      The other problem that is related to this, which I think feeds this complaint, is that players (and GMs) new to 4e feel they have to play the powers as written, which feels like a restriction of choice / player agency. They feel like if there isn't a specific power for the action they wish to take, they can't do that action.

      It would have been great if the 4e DMG had some guidelines for customizing powers "on-the-fly" to fit with the players actions. For instance, if I want to kick a chair into the bad guy to trip him (or similar), I don't have a power for this. But I *should* be able to improv/modify one of my existing powers even if the non-damage effect is not a prone/slow effect. Let's say I did have a "push" power, but I specifically want to try to trip the NPC by kicking the chair. The DM should allow this and let me give him the "prone" condition instead using the same power (perhaps at a -2 or something to simulate the increased difficulty). Imagine how a world of actions would open up for the PCs if they knew that it was ok to try something "not in the cards".

      This actually sounds like a good idea for your 4e zine... Maybe I'll write up some guidelines and examples for a future issue.

  2. I find it ironic that you are using the OSR heading on a 4e blog, as the OSR was initially a negative response to 4e. Also, using a picture of a creature from an early edition book (intellect devourer, the platypus type thing) is another strange choice when touting 4e. A lot of the more senseless vitriol poured on WoC for 4e was after they started appropriating old images, like the D&D video and old art.

    I have played 4e, and will admit the battlemap combat system was pretty cool. I think your argument that you don't 'need' a battlemap to play 4e, when the battlemap play is an implicit design feature and one of the attractions of the system, begs the question of why bother to play 4e at all if you're not going to use its best feature?

    With regards to your point that 4e powers are no more complicated than 1e spells, let's say that this is in essence true. As you write, "I posit to you the following: there is no power in 4e that is any more or less complicated to adjudicate in gridless play than there is in any other edition of D&D. If you can handle a Stinking Cloud in your mind's eye, you can handle a close blast 3. Sorry; its just a fact." Another fact is that in early editions only players choosing MU or Cl would need to handle this level of complexity, and beginning the game they would only have to select 1 or 2 spells at best. 4e foists this complexity on all players regardless of their class choice, and the choices as I recall (heal self, damage other, multiple attacks, etc) all had different nomenclature, but were essentially the same and made class largely irrelevant.

    Listen, instead of trying to argue that 4e is just as good as older editions, which is a fool's errand because everyone has different tastes and definitions of good, why not concentrate more on 4e's strengths and mitigate its weaknesses? You yourself admit to hit point bloat in 4e, while other OSR blogs provide patches for older editions. The edition wars are thankfully over, 4e is now on the crapheap with 1 to 3e, so if you like it, pick it up, dust it off, and make the points you like shine like burnished silver. I like what you're trying to do, but instead of trying to prove how others are wrong, you'd gain a lot more fellowship if you shared your enthusiasm for what is right about your chosen game.

    Game on!

    1. Thanks for your post! First off, a lot of OSR games came out years before 4e. Castles and Crusades came out in 2004. OSRIC first came out in 2006. Its hard to say that two of the flagship products of the OSR were a response to a game that hadn't yetbeen released. It think it is much more accurate to say that the OSR was borne out of a desire to return to old-school gaming. To be honest, defining it as a mere response to 4e cheapens the movement.

      The reason I have OSR symbology on my blog is because my blog is devoted to incorporating old school elements into 4e. That is its main purpose. This doesn't mean I don't like 4e. It means I like parts of all editions and seek for creative ways to blend them. If you don't like that aim, you will hate my blog. I think you will find I do extol the virtues of 4e, its just that I also like old-school games. I like blending the two together. Its fun for me; its what I like. I am not arguing that 4e is "just as good" as any other edition, as that is indeed a matter of taste. That said, I do sometimes attempt to dispel myths about the game, which I consider to be objectively false.

      I like being able to flow between abstract, mapless combat, and combat with maps and minis. That's the way I was reared playing almost 30 years ago with 1e AD&D. That's the way I do it in my current 2e campaign that I DM. So for me, being able to use both gridded combat and "theatre of the mind" is the ideal, regardless of edition.

      Once again, I appreciate your post! The last thing I want to be doing is appearing like I am coming down on anyone's style or tastes. To be honest, I have always viewed my blog as trying to bring different gamers together.

    2. Good to hear your intentions! OSRIC and C&C may precede 4e and stem from the OGL, but I don't think you can deny the pace of the OSR was quickened by dissatisfaction with 4e and WoC corporate maneuvers. That being said, I appreciate what you're doing and if we can cross pollinate the good parts of editions, it is win win. Sadly, this type of mutually beneficial discussion was impossible a few years back with OSR blog drama...

    3. I'm a fan of your Mystic Japan series, and I think you're right about focusing on the strengths of 4e. The battlemap is definitely a centerpiece of the system, with its focus on tactical skirmishes.

      If you're interested in more cross-pollination of 4e and earlier editions, you might be interested in the content on my blog:


  3. Very interesting post. Bringing gamers together is indeed a noble goal! I think a good DM with good players who work together can make any edition work. That's the beauty of RPG games. The rules are presented and explained, either in great detail with several thick hard-backed books (like D&D 3.5 ed. I have a crap-ton of them myself) or maybe the rules are contained in one thin softcover affair with less than 20 pages. For example; the old TSR "Star Frontiers" basic game book had like 16!
    It was hardly thicker than a placemat.
    Some folks like details and a "rule" for everything. Some people need all that material so they can function. Some use the thing between their ears, some common sense, and a their own imagination and do just fine. :)

  4. This is so true. It is like all of a sudden people forgot that the rules are there as guidelines and the #1 rule of D&D has always been - the DM makes the rules. If a DM wants to guestimate distances and radius there is no difference in doing so between 1e, 2e, 3e or 4th.

  5. The same year I first heard about the OSR, I met a DM at a local Con who was running a D&D game using the 1978 blue book Gygax/Arneson rules. The DM ran the game for big party of 12 or 13 PCs and everyone created their character by the rules at the start. The rule book is only 48 pages, the guy had added a house rule or two, and there were so few choices for the players to make that it went quick. For the next four hours or so we had a blast! He used his own judgment when things weren't covered in the rules. Nobody argued with him, no one had to stop and look anything up (one else even had a rule-book). It was fun because it was simple and because there were flaws. He ran with it and it worked. We used no map or miniatures. We used graph paper and pencil to draw our own maps from his descriptions. This was tough and would have slowed the game down if we were trying to make them accurate. The DM wouldn't let us, it simulated really trying to map in a dark dangerous place underground. My point is that this could have been accomplished with 3.5e, Pathfinder, or 4e as well, but you may have to take their rule-books away from them!

  6. I was in a gaming store and overheard a player talking about the problems with 4E. He came across as though he was simply repeating something he had heard before, not something he had come to by himself. Too often I see (on blogs and comments) and hear people criticizing 4E that really have never played it and are just going by what someone else said.

    As for the gridless 4E, I had to run several games without a grid when we had to change homes for a few weeks. The game ran just fine without a map and still retained the elements of positioning that 4E brings to the game.

  7. Great post! I had problems getting a 4E game together in my area due to the bandwagon criticism; I may have fell in to that trap a time or two myself even. I've been acquiring 4E books from a co-worker selling them dirt cheap. Between the reading of those manuals and this blog I am interested in playing 4E more than ever.

    Charlie @ [url=http://semiretired]The Semi-Retired Gamer[/url].