In all the Internet chatter about D&D Next, one recurrent theme is the complaint that “there’s not enough 4e in Next.” According to the vision cast for D&D Next from the earliest announcements pictured the next iteration of D&D as one that would unite aficionados of all D&D editions, at least from the Holmes basic rulebook onward through AD&D, BECMI, 2e, 3(.5)e, and 4e. Judging by the comments on message boards, Twitter, and Legends & Lore columns, many players are currently finding it easier to see the influences of AD&D, 2e, and 3e than the influences of 4e on D&D Next. Here’s a brief transcript of one such exchange:
@redcometcasval Uhhh… do you really not see all the 3e/4e that’s basically the entire core system?
— Mike Mearls (@mikemearls) April 22, 2013
The shared heart of 3e/4e
Note well Mike’s use of “3e/4e,” a reminder that the core mechanics of 3e and 4e remain almost identical. Here are a few things that 3e and 4e have in common with each other, but not with earlier editions:
- A core task resolution mechanic in which you roll a d20, apply any relevant modifiers, and compare the result to a simple target number (AC/DC) to determine success or failure
- Ability scores with modifiers of m = (a – 10) ÷ 2 (rounded down), applicable to a wide variety of situations
- Defense numbers that increase (rather than decrease) as they improve
- A small number of common saving throws/defenses based on characters’ abilities
- Race/class combinations limited only by mathematics
- Global/unified level advancement pace and limits (all classes need the same number of XP to advance a level; all races can attain the system’s maximum level in any class)
In my view, all of these are good things, and improvements on pre-3e iterations of D&D. More to the point, however, they are all features that appear in D&D Next—not in exactly the same form as in 3e or 4e or both, but nevertheless with a recognizable heritage. I think the presence of these kinds of core elements in 3e, 4e, and Next accounts for at least a measurable portion of Mike’s apparent exasperation in the tweet quoted earlier.
They say the heart of 4e is still beating in D&D Next, and from what I see, I believe them.
Where have all the powers gone?
However, when 4e fans (and I include myself in this category) wonder where to find 4e elements in D&D Next, they probably are not thinking about the elements that 4e preserves from 3e. Instead, they’re evidently thinking about features unique to 4e—and some of these are clearly gone from Next, at least in the form 4e fans have grown accustomed to seeing them. Tactical or miniatures-based (skirmish-game-style) combat is one obvious lacuna, but let’s set that aside since speculating about that optional rules module is pretty much premature at this stage for most of us. Also, I don’t think the essence of 4e is the presence or absence of dragonborn, tieflings, goliaths, etc., and I feel certain there’s a place for those races in the future of Next. Let’s focus instead on the biggest “rollback” in Next: the disappearance of the at-will/encounter/daily/utility power (AEDU) power structure.
It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that 4e’s AEDU power structure was not quite as big a step away from 3e as it might superficially appear. In every edition of D&D that I have played (Holmes basic, AD&D, BECMI, 3.5e, 4e, and Next), players have had abilities limited to n uses within timespan t. The most obvious such abilities are, of course, spells, most of which are functionally “daily powers” for spellcasters in non-4e D&D. In AD&D, “laying on hands” is a once-per-day class feature for paladins, and curing diseases is a once-per-week class feature. It doesn’t really make much difference whether this feature is presented in a text paragraph as in the AD&D Player’s Handbook or in a power stat block as in the 4th edition Player’s Handbook.
Indeed, lay on hands provides a good example of how 4e’s AEDU template could be limiting: 4e’s lay on hands is an at-will power limited to uses per day equal to the paladin’s wisdom modifier, but it could just as easily have been a daily power with a similar caveat. If an “at-will” power is really usable “at will until you’ve used it n times in the adventuring day” or an “encounter” power is really “twice per encounter” or “three times per encounter,” is the AEDU structure really all that useful? Even with the color-coded power cards and whatnot, the maroon band on your cause fear power doesn’t actually mean the same thing as the maroon band on your healing word power. From a player’s point of view in terms of bookkeeping, it doesn’t make any difference whether healing word is an encounter power usable twice per encounter or an at-will power limited to twice per encounter—the effect is the same.
Therefore, I don’t think it’s important to have the terminology of at-will, encounter, and daily powers in order to have the phenomenon of such powers, and that phenomenon is present in D&D Next just as it was present in all other editions of D&D—not in the same proportions or presentation, but present and accounted for nevertheless. There’s 4e chocolate in 5e’s peanut butter.
There’s another power-related phenomenon, or set of phenomena, that deserve attention as we evaluate how much of 4e is discernible in Next. I call this “decoupling” attacks from rider effects. 4e fighters can choose a 1st-level power called spinning sweep, a melee attack that deals 1[W] + Strength modifier damage and knocks the target prone. The rogue has topple over as a 3rd-level choice, which is exactly the same effect except that it’s keyed to Dexterity instead of Strength. The paladin can choose thunder smite at 7th level, which deals 2[W] + Strength modifier thunder damage and knocks the target prone. At level 7, a 4e two-weapon ranger can choose sweeping whirlwind, which deals 1[W] + Strength modifier damage to each adjacent enemy, pushes each target back, and knocks each target prone; compare that to the fighter’s vorpal tornado, which is almost exactly the same power as the ranger’s sweeping whirlwind, except that its push effect is weaker and it’s ten levels higher (same targeting, same damage). It’s reasonable to ask why the fighter and the rogue need two different powers to represent brute-forcing and finessing your opponent to the ground. It’s also reasonable to ask why fighters figure out how to trip their opponents at 1st level, rogues take until 3rd level to figure it out, why a paladin needs magical thunder to knock an opponent down while a fighter can actually “sweep the leg,” and why a ranger can suddenly go from no melee attacks that can knock enemies down to a melee attack that can knock eight enemies down at the same time. And it’s reasonable to ask why all of these expert combatants forget how to trip their opponents or are unable to pull it off more than once per fight using these encounter powers. Yes, it’s fun to use these powers in combat, but in some ways the differences between the listed classes and powers are somewhat absurd. The differences are clearly driven by the need to combine different mechanical elements in different ways to create unique powers for each class rather than by a consideration of how things might should work in “real fantasy life.”
In Next I see a “decoupling” of riders from effects, such that being able to trip your opponent becomes its own separate thing, the Trip Attack feat. As of the March 2013 playtest packet, at any rate, any melee combatant can gain a “power”—even though it’s not called that—essentially equivalent to the 4e fighter’s spinning sweep. By taking Trip Attack and also choosing the Deep Wound option for his or her Death Dealer class feature, a 5e fighter can in effect create a new “power” just like spinning sweep, but dealing 1[W] + 1d6 damage. At the same time, a 5e rogue can can take the Trip Attack feat and use a finesse weapon to achieve the same results as topple over, but at 1st level. A 1st-level paladin or ranger can learn to trip a single opponent, without having to resort to magic. And so on.
This is not to say that every 4e power can be recreated in Next by some combination of feats and class features. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be. But personally, despite loving 4e, I don’t mourn the passing of powers—because they’re not really gone, just like they weren’t really new in 4e, just implemented in a more overt and standardized way. The packaging of powers might be gone, but the effects of powers are still present and, in some ways, more accessible and more useful than ever.