Hola all. Massawyrm here.
So, now that I’ve got all the basics and the impressions out of the way. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What was it like to run a game in 4E? Pretty freaking awesome. All this talk of simplicity goes out the window once you begin to talk about RUNNING a game. Sure, the rules are simple, but the combat tactics become a whole new ballgame for us DM’s.
But those simple rule changes do make life a hell of a lot easier. During our first game, my intrepid game designer buddy decided to throw a monkey wrench into the works by having his character dive under a table and kick it out from under two guys fighting on top of it. He smiled devilishly, looked at me and asked “How are you gonna rule that…DM?” I glanced at the book for a moment and realized “Strength check against their reflexes.” Huh. He shook his head. Made sense. He made the attack, hit the numbers and all of a sudden he had two opponents prone on the floor. The rules are so straight forward now, on the fly decisions are total cake.
And when slightly more complicated rule calls come into play, don’t worry. The way they’ve set up the rule chapters are simple, clear and pure genius. Everything in the combat chapter is alphabetized. You need the grappling rules? Turn to the G’s. How about Charging? C. And once you’re there, you’ll find that all the major rules are listed as bullet points. Any and every instance for a rule is listed separately in its own bullet point and there aren’t any more of those infamous important rules buried at the end of a paragraph somewhere in the middle of chapter 9.
The biggest change you’re going to notice is that combats are RADICALLY different than they ever have been. The idea of the single, lone monster fight is almost entirely gone. 4E is about mobs. It’s about the Gnoll hunter traveling with two Gnoll warriors and 3 hyenas. It’s about Goblins on Worg-back with a spellcaster bringing up the rear. It’s about ambushes and strange locations. It’s as much about how you’re fighting as it is what you’re fighting. Setting up the fights mechanically is a breeze. Every monster level has an XP total and there’s a simple chart that tells you what XP an encounter of a party size of X level equals. For example a 7th level party of four characters is 1200 experience points. A standard 7th level monster is 300 XP. 4 monsters of the same level equal a standard challenge for the party.
But the biggest revolution is game design for 4E is the fact that the monsters scale PERFECTLY. And so do the PCs. The amount of damage they deal and can take moves up appropriately so multiple monsters of a lower level is EQUAL in damage output and the amount it can take as a single monster of a higher level. A level 1 monster is 100XP. So 12 level 1 monsters would make a suitable encounter for a 7th level party. And yes, for those of you thinking ahead of me, this means it is very simple to mix monsters of different levels. That same party would be equally matched by a level 9 monster (400XP) and 4 level 5 monsters (200XP each.) Doing the MATH of each encounter takes seconds. The challenging part becomes being creative. How exactly will you mix and match your monsters, how will they interact together and where will you place the encounter to make it easier or tougher than the straight numbers would intimate. That right there is where things get really fun for the 4E Dungeon Master. The new rule set allows you to be positively devious without risking the dreaded TPK (total party kill.) 4E rewards the inventive DM by giving him a wide range creatures with a large range of abilities and combat roles, then turns him loose to try and find the nastiest, most dastardly ways to harass his players.
But don’t get too cocky there, Jeeves. The players have all sorts of new tools and tactics to dismantle even the cleverest of traps. Rangers SUCK. Not in the 3.x way in which they’re silly and underpowered. As a DM, you will learn to hate them because with a well placed shot they can drop your back field controller before he gets a chance to really harass your players. The days of taking it easy on the caster or ranged fighter are done and gone. You need to learn quickly how to put pressure on the party’s back field fighters or else you will watch encounter after encounter go down the same way as the tank draws fire while the healer stands him up (while doing damage herself) and the ranger/wizard blasts key opponents out of the picture. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. No. Simple, straight forward encounters comprised of four of the same monster are the way to ruin. The system may encourage complicated tactics and encounters…but clever players will simply require them.
And at the same time, character death isn’t as easy as it used to be. Level 1 characters are front loaded with hit points and abilities, so the old accidental crit by the goblin archer won’t actually kill a player. It’s a slight bit tougher than that now. And it becomes even tougher if there’s a cleric in the group. A strong, smart healer can stand up near death characters several times before they actually risk permanent death. This is going to be a big change for some folks, as the weekly “Who do we have to pay to get raised this week” becomes much less frequent (until Epic, when pretty much everyone can Res for free, on a daily basis. You get abilities that let you do cool things when you die. Swear to Pelor. Epic is weird.)
XP works a lot differently now too. EVERYTHING you do can pretty much get you XP. The big change is that Social Encounters will net you xp. Traps and puzzles are XP based rather than just CRs. And taking a tip from WoW, there are even QUEST REWARDS now. The DMG even includes suggestions on how PC’s can instigate their own quests. These are no longer vague rule suggestions – but are instead hard and fast rules that allow you to really control the rate of level progression without feeling like you’re just lumping XP on the PC’s. At the same time, the new system allows you to take the players from one level to the next without ever having to swing a sword. Not that you’d necessarily want to, but all of a sudden courtly intrigue and puzzle quest heavy campaigns are just as viable XP wise as straight hack and slash. And it’s all based on the same simple mechanics.
And nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, takes away XP anymore. No more level loss. No more XP to fuel abilities or make magic items. Nothing. In fact the book encourages you to award XP to absent players, just so everyone always has the same amount and is playing at the same level. I’ve been doing this, and the players love it. That lame idea of reward for attendance gets outweighed by the reward of everyone being equally useful. Besides, loot for attendance works just as well.
Another great aspect of 4E is the new abilities versus feats delineation. Abilities are something that the player can do ACTIVELY. This includes casting a fireball, using a tricky bow shot or healing another character. Feats on the other hand tend to modify your stats or affect what you can do PASSIVELY. The abilities are all very carefully set up with level dependant damage and scaling. You no longer have the ability to pick and choose from a number of prestige classes (thus no stacking weird combinations of class abilities), and since bonus stacking is very simple and easy these days, the chances of nasty, disgusting, broken combos is going to take a LOT of future bonehead game design and a lot of work on the part of the players. There are plenty of ways to optimize your characters – but straight up broken combos are going to become a thing of the past.
One of the things the rules stress in the DMG is to get used to saying “YES” to players. Let them try weird things and how you should try to find ways to allow it. And the ruleset seems to allow it while remaining incredibly stable. Stable really is the best way to describe it. We’ve spent four months trying to break it and we can’t. There have been a few iterations of rule interpretations that have created oddities, but the playtesting did an incredible job of tweaking those down to make sense. Hell, there was an interpretation of Stealth early on that allowed you to use another player to hide, then jump out and gain COMBAT ADVANTAGE (the 4E version of catching a character flat footed.) This led to a series of comments (and jokes) about a Halfling Rogue in the fighters backpack and ultimately led to a note from the lead developer that read “It shouldn’t work like that. We’ll fix it.” They did.
Remember all that simplicity stuff from part 1 of the review. As a DM you’re about to see why they had to make the rules so simple. It’s because your toolbox just got a lot bigger. And any more complicated and it just wouldn’t work. The great thing is that most of your preparation doesn’t involve books and math. It involves brainstorming and figuring out how to make encounters unique, fun and, yes, devilishly effective.
Then of course you have to figure out loot. Who doesn’t love loot? Well, in 4E there’s a hell of a lot less of it. It also doesn’t affect a lot of the things it used to. But it is still as important as ever. The loot rules pretty much give players a new magic item every level. And the gear gives you new abilities, protection from abilities or simply modifies your attacks or defenses. There are no more stat bump items, nor are you expected to have magic loot at certain levels. The result is a system that allows low or no magic campaigns without a lot of heartache or rule tweaking. Magic items all do COOL things. Armor doesn’t just protect you, it also gives you things to do in combat. Items you wear give you options, not bumps. And the abilities things grant make them useful for levels beyond what loot used to. There are items I can imagine being just as useful at level 20 as it was at level 4. The overall result of all of these loot changes is a system more about fantasy, character and story than it is about Min/Maxing. There’s a lot more “This is the cloak given to me by Queen Soandso and a lot less “Dude, why are you still wearing that +2 Periapt of Wisdom. You’re level 12 now.”
Oh yeah. And there’s no such thing as a magic item shop anymore. Which is fine, because they’ve finally made Crafting rules that actually make sense and don’t require calculus or the loss of XP. If you want a certain magic item, learn how to make it, and spend the gold to make it. Crafting magic items is what the gold cost is for now a days.
All in all, the game plays and runs very differently than before. It still has that classic D&D feel, but your focus as a game runner really is going in new and exciting directions. You’ll send most of your time dreaming things up rather than tallying things up. And it makes all the difference.
Tune in tomorrow for the third and final installment of this review in which I talk about the new monster manual, how monster work and my few (nit picky) gripes about the new system.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.