Getting 4e Right

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When I first started playing 3.x, I was on board with the system and thought it was pretty darn good. But as I played more of the game, over the course of half a decade, and especially as I ran numerous games of it, I began to notice some serious problems and/or just weird decisions. In my opinion, 3.x was broken, or very nearly so.

So I wrote a letter to the folks at Dragon magazine a few years ago, pointing out the problems. I knew it wouldn't be published, and I was right. I wouldn't have published it, either, especially since it is so critical of the system. But I got to thinking about that article lately as I've been reading some of the 4e previews, and liking what I hear.

Below is the editorial I wrote, with my thoughts on how things have been changed.

Dear Dragon and my fellow D&D players,

I've been gaming for over 20 years now, and I've played a whole host of different systems, some better than others. For the last three years the system of choice has been the d20 system, and I have failthfully purchased quite a number of rulebooks and sourcebooks to keep up on it. I especially love the detail and quality of the Forgotten Realms D&D products.

However, as the years have gone by I have looked a little closer at the rules the d20 system uses. My first problem was with the Base Attack concept; it bothered me that I wasn't able to specialize or modify my combat ability in any way. My dissatisfaction with d20 has grown exponentially since then, and now has gotten to the point where I see so many problems with it that there's almost no part I wouldn't change:

• Attributes (Why is a bonus number necessary? Why not just use the attribute score and adjust DC numbers accordingly?)

I still wonder about this. I've seen no evidence this is being dealt with for 4e. But, really, why have both an Attribute number *and* a bonus number, since you only really use the bonus number? I'd prefer to see some important usage of both, or scrap one of them.

• Saving Throws (Why not just use the attribute?)

Apparently saving throws are getting changed for 4e into static numbers, working like AC does. I'm okay with this change.

• Combat (Ranged and melee function as skills, so why separate them from the others? Why are they so simplified, with *all* melee weapons falling under one category? Why *assign* base attack numbers and not let players choose?)

4e is probably still going to use BAB, which I'm not crazy about. Shouldn't it be a *skill*? I'm just sayin'.....

• Types of Dice Used (Why do we need all those weird, hard-to-find dice? Can't we use just one, especially if the system is called "d20?")

This is a practical matter for some people, but not all. There's some old-skool appeal to using six or seven differently-shaped dice, but it can be a pain sometimes. But I recognize that of all "sacred cows," this is freakin' untouchable to D&D players, old and new. So nevermind.

• Damage (Why does the quality of my hit not determine how much damage I do? I.e, why can I still do low damage, even if I hit by 18 points, or high damage if I hit by only 1 point?)

I'm sure 4e won't be addressing this. I never liked beating someone's AC by a huge margin, then only inflicting a scratch, while my friend across the table just squeaks in at the target AC and maxes his damage. Makes no sense. Damage should depend on the quality of one's hit.

Magic (Why am I only allowed x-number of spells per day? Why just a few "slots?" Why do I get to freely perform such a complicated, arcane act, when something simple like climbing a ladder takes a roll? Why is the burden on the victim to defend against the magic, and not on the mage to cast it?)

Death to Vancian magic! Make the spellcaster *do* something to cast a spell, already! But at least the whole saving throw thing has been updated.

• Feats (Why do so many of them "allow" you to do stuff you should be able to do anyway, like aim? And wouldn't it be better to have just a few very unique and bizarre feats?)

I know most d20 players are Feat Fetishists (haha), but I'd like to see some restraint exercised here for 4e. Make feats a little more meaningful, and don't require them in place of combat options.

• Skills (Why does WOTC believe +1 is such a big deal, when the number derived from a skill roll alone can be 20 times that high? If you roll an 18, have 12 ranks, and +4 attribute bonus, to what benefit does a measly +1 circumstance bonus amount?)

Hopefully, this will be addressed in 4e by reconfiguring balance issues.

• Levels (Why are there only 20? Why not have more with a smaller difference between them? Why do people only advance their knowledge in abrupt, huge steps? What "level" is an infant? How can an old man still be the same level as a farmboy?)

Now there will be 30 levels, and it seems the steps may be a little more incremental. Thank goodness. But it still doesn't answer the commoner/child question: What level is a baby? Zero? Surely the difference between a newborn and a teenager is more than one level. This is the problem with level-based characters.

• Experience Points (Why not just award us with raw points we can directly and immediately distribute?)

I do hope there is some change to experience points in 4e. There is no reason we need to express XP in the *thousands* when we could drop a could decimal points and it would all still work fine. 25 XP for killing a monster, not 2500.

• Classes (Why is my character defined solely by his profession?)

Classes are so 1981, but I know they aren't going anywhere. Talent tree options are going to help, as will getting rid of the trillions of PRCs in favor of a few specializations. But still, that means to have a mixed-bag character, you have to multiclass.

• Hit Points (Why is the amount of physical punishment I can take related to my career? Why do hit points go into negatives? Shouldn't everyone just have ten more hit points and avoid this?)

Still doesn't make sense on any level except game balance, but I'll have to wait and see what changes to HP we'll see with 4e.

• Alignment (Aren't people more complex than this? Why is my character's behavior locked into one of 9 possibilities? Doesn't "evil" really mean "selfish?")

The biggest thing to me was overcoming my sense of alignment as moral choice. I finally realized that, in D&D, absolute good and evil exists because powerful gods have declared it so. My beef with alignment comes from a real-world sense of ambiguity that was hard to put aside. We'll see how alignment works in 4e.

• Armor Class (Why can't I improve on this with training? Why does armor deflect, and not absorb?)

I still think armor should absorb, or at least *also* absorb.

• Attacking (Why can I only attack once in 6 seconds? Why does my 12th level Lasher with the right feats get to attack 7 times in 6 seconds with the full attack option but only *once* with standard? -- True story!)

They didn't bring Lasher over to 3.5, instead using the Exotic Weapon Specialist, but still. Other insane combos were out there, and my players found them, believe me. Attacking six or seven times is a round is way, way too much. Then again, why can I only attack one time every six seconds? I'd suggest getting rid of iterative attacks totally, or maybe capping it at one extra. Then reduce rounds a little bit.

• Character Development (Why is there no consideration nor incentive for making characters with weaknesses?)

We need weaknesses, which can function as anti-feats.

• Action Points (Why does one of these rare, valuable points only add between 1 and 6 points to a roll? Shouldn't it be a consistent number? Shouldn't the benefit be a little more measurable?)

I understand 4e will use some sort of action points. I hope it allows a free reroll over the d20 modern "+1d6" junk.

• Attribute Generation (Doesn't random rolling encourage cheating? Isn't having two characters with different attribute values imbalanced, arguments about "realism" aside? Is the game actually supposed to be "realistic"?And isn't it important for game integrity for all players to have an equal footing at the start? For example, who would play chess if one's pieces were randomly determined?)

There are dozens of posts on this board about this, but let me just put in my vote here: Balance in a game, at least to start with, is crucial. Point-buy should be the gold standard. However, I think WOTC needs to revisit its point-buy method. Why does it curve, when attributes themselves don't?

• Miss Chance (What is the difference between missing because you can't see and missing normally? Why not just calculate miss chance as a penalty to hit? Why "add on" another rule mechanic? Technically, shouldn't we always be rolling a miss chance then?)

Still true.

• Critical Hits (Why do we have to reroll to "back it up?" Why not something simpler, like rolling again and adding the result? Why are there no "critical misses?" Why no success levels, like where beating someone by 17 points pays off in a better result than beating them by 1 point?)

In my games, we replaced the wording of the books by saying, "beat the target AC or DC by 20 points and you've got a critical." I also played with "exploding" dice, so that rolling a nat. 20 meant rolling again and adding, and then every increment of 20 over the target DC was another crit multiple. Made more sense to me than "backing it up," which was worded in a bizarre way. "If you roll in your crit threat range, roll again. If you miss, you just hit. If you hit, you *really* hit!"


As you can see, the amount of problems I have with d20 are so numerous, someone might (rightly so) ask me why I still play it. I thought about it and could only find *one* reason: it is what everyone is playing right now. Having one universal system is nice because it makes starting new games or bringing in new players easier. You don't need to learn a new system every time. But that doesn't mean it is a good system.

If you print this letter in its entirety, I hope the readers will understand my reasons for pointing out these flaws. Dragon magazine is the perfect outlet for improving D&D because it can function as a forum for rules issues. The current version of D&D was hobbled by the need to pander to 1st and 2nd edition hard-liners, but the end result is a compilation of "kludge" rules and exceptions. I hope WOTC *does* put out a 4th edition, and I hope they can bring this wonderful game into the next generation.

When I first heard about 4e, I wasn't happy. I felt like we had been deceived about it while WOTC let us blithely keep buying books. I'm still peeved about that. WOTC would be wise to adapt a "no comment" policy from now on.

But that said, I'm growing more and more excited about D&D again. So far, all of their proposed changes sound pretty good to me. They may win me back as a player after all.

-B
I still wonder about this. I've seen no evidence this is being dealt with for 4e. But, really, why have both an Attribute number *and* a bonus number, since you only really use the bonus number? I'd prefer to see some important usage of both, or scrap one of them.

Certainly something they did to make the system work better. The math of the game is not as simple as it looks. To make the change from Modifier to attribute, it's not just a matter of increasing the DCs, it's a matter of readjusting the HP gain/level, the attack and AC modifiers, a spell caster's spells/day, the effect a specific stat has on each spell, tons of monsters' abilities' effects, the effect of all magic items, etc. Adjusting the DC is certainly the easiest of all.;)

While on that topic, I do agree that it could be changed a bit. Negative modifiers really annoy me ¬¬
Apparently saving throws are getting changed for 4e into static numbers, working like AC does. I'm okay with this change.

Me too.
4e is probably still going to use BAB, which I'm not crazy about. Shouldn't it be a *skill*? I'm just sayin'.....

No, d20 is not a general point by system. (you can see that even skill point buying is being removed in 4e). That's why never buy your abilities, you either choose them or get them without choice.
This is a practical matter for some people, but not all. There's some old-skool appeal to using six or seven differently-shaped dice, but it can be a pain sometimes. But I recognize that of all "sacred cows," this is freakin' untouchable to D&D players, old and new. So nevermind.

It's not a sacred cow, it's the system itself.
While the d20 system would surely survive without one dice or another (d12 I'm looking at you), adapting it as to allow the use of only one dice would require you to completely change the system. The system has always been about rolling a d8 to see damage when striking with your long sword, rolling 8d20 and dealing 1 damage for each roll above 11 (or whatever) just wouldn't be the same thing.
I never liked beating someone's AC by a huge margin, then only inflicting a scratch, while my friend across the table just squeaks in at the target AC and maxes his damage.

Me neither, =/
Death to Vancian magic! Make the spellcaster *do* something to cast a spell, already! But at least the whole saving throw thing has been updated.

I believe your prayers will be answered on this one.;)
Now there will be 30 levels, and it seems the steps may be a little more incremental. Thank goodness. But it still doesn't answer the commoner/child question: What level is a baby? Zero? Surely the difference between a newborn and a teenager is more than one level. This is the problem with level-based characters.

Each system has it's focus. D&D is a system build for adventuring, so it focuses on balancing and creating options that regard adventurers.
And that goes for both the fluff and the crunch of the game. Since commoners are not going to be your allies, nor your opponents, nor yourself, there are not many details on them.
(sure, you could fight commoners, but they're not going to be a real challenge, so it doesn't matter if they have 1 or 7 HP).

You see, the baby needs no levels. It's a baby for crying out loud! It will barely have 1HP, and would probably die at -2 (no the rules don't say that, but again, the rules don't care about that).
I do hope there is some change to experience points in 4e. There is no reason we need to express XP in the *thousands* when we could drop a could decimal points and it would all still work fine. 25 XP for killing a monster, not 2500.

The thousands are used for greater precision when the XP is split up unevenly (without the need for decimals). But yeah, they could go.
Classes are so 1981, but I know they aren't going anywhere. Talent tree options are going to help, as will getting rid of the trillions of PRCs in favor of a few specializations. But still, that means to have a mixed-bag character, you have to multiclass.

As with the dice: Classes ARE D&D. It's good that they are getting more options, but many many many (many) players would be disappointed if they went anywhere.
And the PrC... Well, WotC is always in need for materials to fill new books.
Still doesn't make sense on any level except game balance, but I'll have to wait and see what changes to HP we'll see with 4e.

HP (as it's defenders never tire to explain) is an abstract concept. It's not just about taking more physical punishment, it's about avoiding the punishment better.
Unfortunately, it has a few flaws, but it also avoids flaws that other systems have with vitality.
(And for that matter, it makes perfect sense that you are able to take more punishment at higher levels. People do it in real life all the time when training in karate, boxing, or other stuff.)
The biggest thing to me was overcoming my sense of alignment as moral choice. I finally realized that, in D&D, absolute good and evil exists because powerful gods have declared it so. My beef with alignment comes from a real-world sense of ambiguity that was hard to put aside. We'll see how alignment works in 4e.

Alignment is the most controversial aspect of D&D. I truly believe it serves no better purpose than to give the paladin a purpose. And I absolutely hate it.
Good news is: it's being changed in 4e. Bad news is: it's still gonna be there.
I still think armor should absorb, or at least *also* absorb.

The real properties of Armors and weapons are impossible to reproduce accurately. It's all a matter of preference: some people prefer to roughly simulate armors one way, other prefer to roughly simulate armors another way.
They didn't bring Lasher over to 3.5, instead using the Exotic Weapon Specialist, but still. Other insane combos were out there, and my players found them, believe me. Attacking six or seven times is a round is way, way too much. Then again, why can I only attack one time every six seconds? I'd suggest getting rid of iterative attacks totally, or maybe capping it at one extra. Then reduce rounds a little bit.

Your attack roll does not represent your only attack for six seconds, it represents the only attack (in all of these 6 seconds) that actually has a chance o hitting. You are constantly feinting and dodging and parrying and stabbing. That one attack roll, is the attack that might hit.

Again, it is a rough simplification, but it has no major issue.

And iterative attacks are going away.;)
We need weaknesses, which can function as anti-feats.

Flaws, Unearthed Arcana. Also found in the SRD.
I understand 4e will use some sort of action points. I hope it allows a free reroll over the d20 modern "+1d6" junk.
4e's action points will be something different from 3e's, as has been announced in a pod cast, so cross your fingers:P
Still true.

Really just a matter of preference. You could make it one way, but it is in no way superior to the other.
"If you roll in your crit threat range, roll again. If you miss, you just hit. If you hit, you *really* hit!"

Critical confirmation was clumsy, as is going away.