Where’s the 4e in D&D Next?

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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:


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.

14 Comments

  1. For me, the core of 4e is balance. 4e achieved it with powers and roles, finally putting casters and non-casters on the same playing field. That’s all I ask from Next and if they can do it without powers, I don’t care.

    We’ll, that and easy reflavoring.

  2. Powers are one of the aspects I would least expect to see preserved in Next. As you point out, they really aren’t too far away once we see how Next has taken 1E/2E class features and given them higher usage per day.

    But, that still leaves tons of 4E innovation that isn’t being tapped. Everything related to monster, terrain, and encounter design is largely being ignored. And these were aspects that made the game vastly easier to DM and vastly easier for new and casual DMs to pick up. That’s a real loss of innovation. Monsters in Next at times show hints of this, but in most cases the monsters look a lot like earlier versions and discard almost everything that was found in a 4E monster book.

    Underpinning the encounter/monster design was the concept of everything having a level. Magic items, attack and utility powers, terrain – these all had a level to ensure balance. With that gone, we are seeing the same arbitrary swings in power we had previously. Utility spells, for example, vary widely in how situational they are. A great example is the level 1 spell lists for classes. Once a PC becomes higher level, some are nearly useless while others are incredibly strong (and therefore spammed). This varies by class, making some classes more powerful at others _at_certain_levels. One level the fighter is strongest, the next the wizard, the next the barbarian… all very swingy. And because things aren’t balanced, choices can again be clearly “bad”.

    Of particular note is that the relative power of each class is strongly tied to the length of the day. Some classes are nearly the same strength all the time, while others can really pack a punch with a few limited uses (spells, special damage features, etc.). This causes certain classes to dominate when the day is short (most non-delve adventures written today) and then strongly fade and become lackluster during a long dungeon crawl.

    Healing was massively changed in 4E. While the combo of high hit points, leader classes, second wind, and short rest healing was a bit too much, the return to ‘must have a cleric’ and level 1 PCs dying in the first round is a complete undoing of all the innovation. We see low level fights where the PCs can’t revive a fallen companion, so the player sits out (or a TPK slowly develops through attrition). We see the cleric forced to heal every single round, event though that player wants to be able to do more.

    I could go on. I’m overall very pleased with a lot of what D&D Next offers. I do at the same time find that 4E’s innovations have been unnecessarily discarded, to the detriment of D&D Next.

    • “Everything related to monster, terrain, and encounter design is largely being ignored.” I don’t know that we have enough information to actually say this yet, at least not in the fully public playtest packets that have been released. These are issues that pertain mostly to the DM’s side of the screen, and Mike Mearls et al. have made it clear that releasing player-side materials into the wild has been a higher priority for them. Until we see more DM-side stuff it’s hard to have an informed discussion about terrain and encounter design. The Next monster stat block, on the other hand, does preserve some 4e innovation, in the way it breaks down actions and traits.

  3. Our group (the podcast here) only played the first iteration of Next together. I was the wizard. We realized after I went down in our second of 3-4 encounters that I was a total waste of party resources to revive/heal, and that it should be saved for someone who had more hit points and that could do more damage. My party thus dragged me to the next room. Where everyone died. On the other hand, I think Chris did want a TPK. He likes to wipe us out every so often…

    • I have to confess that I don’t understand the question. How is analyzing the sources and influences of D&D Next being a “grognard”? Are you simply reacting to the title without reading the article (which answers the titular question in a straightforward, non-whining manner)? For that matter, when I have ever called anybody a “grognard,” or even further, what makes you think I would consider the term “grognard” an insult?

  4. Though I have only read through the test packets as my group basically only had the time/energy to learn one system, and we are playing 4e with two brand new players who are not very inclined towards mechanics and dice rolling, I do have some thoughts, theoretical as they may be.

    I like that you can have the ability to replicate powers ala 4e in Next, but your abilities seem limited. I really disliked how in 2nd and 3.5 spellcasters were the only ones who had really significant decisions to make and who really had a wide variety of feasible, sensible choices to make, especially at high level.

    Despite the much bemoaned ‘WoW’-ification of 4e; which, I must comment, I was highly skeptical of, I found once I played it it really worked well, and was fun. Unlike in previous editions, higher level classes other than spellcasters could feel quite powerful.

    I fear there has been a rollback of this in Next. Sure, they can pick paths which situationally can be very powerful, but it still seems that spellcasters can overall just plain do better in more situations.

    All that said, I really appreciate how much playtesting and just plain effort is being pit into Next (Or 5e or whatever). I really like the advantage/disadvantage mechanic and I think the next campaign I’m in will be Next (I’m running a 4e campaign designed to go into easily epic tier, assuming it lasts that long. They’re level 6 right now but all seems to be going well. I was ‘influenced’ (blatantly stole) some parts of Chris’s campaign, especially the beginning, but now things are wildly different, assimilating the ‘Critical Hit’ stuff and many elements from ‘Thursday Knights’ along with, of course, my own interperations. Annnyway…)

    At the end of the day, I think what system you are running is largely inconsequential. Just had a discussion on G+ about alignment in D&D and how some people were saying how horrible alignment was and was the reason they’d never play D&D again. To me, that’s like saying they’d never drive a car again because they drove a car once that had air conditioning vents that didn’t blow the right way. The point is how you play is largely rule agnostic. It might affect a few minor things, but if you are doing it right, it won’t stop you from ebing what you want to be.

  5. I love 4e, and I’m playtesting next, and next makes me remember the frustrating 3,5 feeling to see how casters shun on more and more as characters are growing, until level 8, barbarian was the big damage dealer and casters showed versatility, after that(now playing characters of level 13), casters are the stars of the game, in and out of battle, where wizzard and druid are the best classes, then cleric, and after the cleric, the paladin and ranger, far from them are the rogue and the warrior, and being the worst and more boring character is the barbarian. Next is ok is an improvement to 3.5, but it is like pathfinder just an improvement to 3.5, and that’s where other major points are seen; it’s not about the powers, it’s about how 4e was simple and had a stream line were players can rely on.

    Let’s see it what they eliminate from next that make 4e a good game, were not powers, instead were how classes progressed evenly, independently of the class you knew that level 2 gain a utility power, level 11 a paragon path and so on… the mechanics run the same, the attack was the same, you attack, AC, reflexes, fortitude or will, in next you attack AC but you have to save against all 6 characteristics, the reason as Mearl explained it’s that you have to defend against those effects, so when some creature shoots you an arrow or hits you with an axe, you only wait as your AC absorbs the impact, the same logic could be used for AC, you have to save against a melee or ranged attack; they forget that this gives players the control over the game and specially, you don’t have the annoying differentiation between mundane attack and caster’s attack; from that principle once again the game has worsened from 4e.

  6. I agree with most of the comments made thus far, but I disagree with almost all of them too. Next is a step back into what D&D is in the earlier versions of 2e and earlier. I have been playing since the mid 80s and I fell in love with AD&D but when I bought 3e I liked the game mechanics much more. If you play the game looking at whether your class can cause more damage to your opponents then you have missed the entire point of the game. D&D is an rpg and everyone needs to think outside of the plastic box you live in, a computer. WoW is an awesome game too, but there is no rpg aspect to it. That was the beauty and crime of 4e, too much computer based and miniature based game play. 4e is a great game and I love it, but I am happy to see next moving back to a rpg based aspect, while keeping the game mechanics of 3e/4e. Mearls is correct and next is moving in the right direction. I am personally hoping that it one of the next updates more DM stuff will be coming out becuase PC side seems to be fine to me.

  7. Personally my biggest problem with 4e was multiclassing (hybrid as it was changed to). The hybrid system was way to complicated, time consuming, and restrictive. With 3.5e it was simple & you could combine virtually any classes. The multiclassing feats in 4e were complete bs and a waste of a valuable feat.

    Other than the class features, classes were too similiar & I much prefered the unique powers gained at varying levels in 3.5e, however the “swingyness” of the classes strengths was the reason I began multiclassing in the first place.

    Overall I liked the simplicity of 4e above all and I found it easier to play different flavors of setting & story (I’ve even done a noir harry potter-underworld cross setting). If they can keep the simplicity and versatility of all classes that 4e had yet keep the uniqueness & true rpg style of 3.5 & earlier (excluding the wonky mechanics of 2e & AD&D) then it will be good.

  8. The two things I want most out of D&D which I don’t see in next are inter-class balance (previously mentioned) and customisability.

    4E let me make a Warlock|Paladin(Bard) with all sorts of weird combos, and have it be within shouting distance of a vanilla Rogue. Compare that with 3.5, where you *had* to make exotic builds combining multiple prestige classes for martial characters to stay anywhere near casters – and if the casters started playing that game, you were screwed.

    That said, there were lots of elements from 4E that I think could have been streamlined. Icosahedrophilia covered one (inconsistent use of AED labels – for consistency’s sake, they should indicate when a power gets its charges back; Lay-on-hands should be daily).

    Others include numbers for numbers sake – the only time your raw stat numbers are used is at chargen for HP, breaking ties in initiative, and feat pre-reqs. Stats never drop below 8. So why not just drop the legacy 3d6 system, and have starting stats range from 0(8) to 5(18)?

    Futhermore, even though your stats go up as you progress, the monsters you expect to be fighting have their numbers increase in lockstep. At level 1, you have a +10 to hit an AC of 20; at level 30 you have a +30 to hit an AC of 40, but your chance to hit remains identical. The only time this makes a difference is if you deliberately fight underleveled encounters, which turns boring pretty quickly after you’ve mown through a few non-challenges.

    The 4E game changed throughout development, leaving a lot of raggedy bits and pieces that needed tidying up – everything from math fix feats (expertise, improved defences) to hybrids bringing useful multi-classing, to the at-will modification options that melee (style feats), divine (domain feats) and arcane (white lotus) got that primal missed out on, the move away from dual-attribute classes, never printing a Power 2 book other than Martial, zero support for Artificers, Seekers and Runepriests, etc, never developing skill challenges or non-combat encounters beyond very minimal bare-bones, etc.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that D&D Next is throwing away the good bits of 4E, and emphasizing the legacy stuff that should really be re-worked. And given WotC’s history of uneven support for the line, it doesn’t seem like those issues will be fixed either.

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