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Conversation: About 4eR

Another community contact, as Graham's 4e Renaissance meets the 4e-friendly and 4e-curious at Adept Play. Following Ross' and my participation in Con 4eR, we met to share our thoughts on encountering and playing the game.

I've written about and showed a lot of play over the past three years, so I don't have much specifically to write here, except to say that I'm now certain that the closeted 4e-friendly population is pretty big. If you're in there, I'd like to encourage you to consider out 'n proud.



Karaburan's picture

Very interesting interview, thanks for sharing! Watching how you and Graham talk so passionately about this edition has made me want to try D&D again: I had a brief and decidedly not positive experience with 3.5, and I think that in the short time my gaming group tried to move to the 4th edition none of us really understood the depth and possibilities offered by the system. I know for a fact that no one wanted to get into it after a while for the same reasons given in your discussion: "it's a video game, not a role-playing game!". Even today, some of my friends can admit that it's a good game....if you accept that the so-called "role", whatever it is, is not present. If I get over my shyness, who knows, I might even participate in the next Con!

As I said, I have very little experience with this cultural phenomenon called D&D, but I am curious about a few things. I was particularly struck by the number of options presented by manuals such as the Primeval Powers manual. This seems like a stupid question, but are they to be considered options for the players or a toolkit for the master? The way you talk in the interview about these parts reminded me, in particular, of Burning Wheel, in which the selection of certain systems and options is perhaps more a chance for the master to set a certain tone for their campaign than for the players to search for the image that best matches their character's. 

I'd also love to hear more about the preparation you use for this system. I've enjoyed reading Sorcerer and your essay "Setting and emergent story": could you recommend other texts to think further about this issue?

- Adriano


LorenzoC's picture

At the risk of sounding snarky, my experience discussing the criticism of 4E as a "videogame" or "boardgame" within the D&D fandom led me to believe that for the most part what people really mean with that is that there's too many precise procedures and too many transparent cause-and-effect that manipulating play is unusually difficult for someone who's used to "true" D&D.

This was particularly evident when you analyze some of the most common points that people were criticizing:

  1. daily character attacks always having some effect or dealing some damage ("What do you mean I can't tell you the attack missed and the BBEG got away?"). 
  2. On this note, the "Effect" line of most powers got the DMs riled up because depending on its position in the text, it may happen on a miss or just happen no matter what.
  3. Similarly, all the push and pull effects make it very hard to envison a script for the scene and make it roll out. I could see the panic of the trained D&D DM who was thinking "Oh so this happened, now after Sam and Sara got their turns, I have this beautiful description of what the monster does!"but then Sam and Sara do their thing and everyone including the monster get moved around and you need to react instead of following a plan.
    During 3.5 expecially (but I've encountered this is OSR play) I've encountered a lot of DMs who prepared fight or action scenes with a very clear idea of how things would play out. After all, in a game where action happens in increments like D&D (you very rarely have a single roll that radically changes a situation, and play proceeds as numbers get whittled down in nearly identical turns) such behaviour is almost encouraged. 4E sort of flipped this on its head because while it's still incremental, almost every action has riders or effects that inject radical shifts in the battlefield, with pieces constantly moving around or changing their status. Other games taught me how to not set up expectations when it comes to interactions and "storytelling", but 4E gaves me all the evidence I needed about how that can be done even in a very structured combat environment. Most DMs I've played with felt this was a flaw and not a feature because they lamented losing "control". All of this is particularly relevant in the comparison with 3.x. I think the common criticism that 3.x becomes a "game of tag" because player characters get abilities with too much contingency is in my opinion rooted in the same desire for control. 


It's no incident that the quintessential example of what's "wrong" with 4E has been over the years the Fighter Power "Come and Get It".

It's a mental/compulsion attack performed by the traditionally dumb brute devoid of charisma. And it uses strength in its to hit roll? A mental attack?
Then it gets worse. The Fighter guy can pick and move the enemies it hits. This is a player moving the DM's pieces. And without even using magic! How can that make sense?

On a superficial level, the resistance to this kind of ability may rest in the slaying of sacred cows or in an arbitrary request for fictional logic ("Why does he use strength? Is he flexing at people? Yelling very hard?").
But in my opinion the real problem is that a player gets to dictate the behaviour of something that DMs have been trained to think was their duty and responsability, and this was too radical for most.

I'm focusing on combat because while the game did things outside of combat that were very interesting and had a lot of potential (Ron has illustrated the potential for skill challenges to be the perfect tool to escalate/descalate situations in and from and during combat, allowing multiple approachs in a way that is rare to find in traditional D&D - escaping the curse of "we've rolled initiative, it's combat now"), this is where most of the discussions focused in the years of the great edition wars (sigh). Again, it's also very reductive because despite having played a decade of 4E, reading about it on Adept Play made me realize that - for example - I've always underestimated the immense potential of the Quest system.

It's a shame more D&D players didn't embrace the game, because I've seen that all the things I've described had a huge effect even on people I've played over the years and play with and that adamantly want to "play D&D". I've seen people used to just wait and roll to attack start to make plans, people start to describe actions and effects and winning their usual resistance to take over authorities traditionally associated with the DM. I feel like it's the perfect version of D&D to act as a stepping stone for teaching people about the potential of other games, too.

And besides, there's no other version of D&D where I can pick up the book and flip pages and feel the urge to start playing that game, using those specific things, instead of getting a generic desire to "play D&D", knowing I'll need to fix the text to make it feel like whatever we feel D&D is in this moment. Reading through character powers and imagining players using them sparks joy, not nostalgia. The most remarkable feature of the game, to me, is probably what makes it a somewhat heretical text to the D&D fandom: it is a very specific game, and not the ultimate version of the same experience (until a new one is out).

First Age's picture

Hi Adriano,

Just to say that you'd be most welcome at the next Con4eR online convention. Hope to see it later this year and I'm starting to think about what adventure to present there!

The Powers books are for the player characters, broadening the options available. They are, of course, inspiration for the DM as well, especially if you are wanting to create some of your own effects for adversaries. The books aren't 'essential' but they broaden and enrich the game very nicely.



First Age's picture

I agree about the transparent agency that 4e delivers. A little bit less authoritative beard stroking and a lot more using the system to do things. It's logical positivism gone mad. Everyone at the table has a stake in controling the action and, neutrally, the game rules just adjudicates the dynamic outcomes.

As a DM I love that collaborative control, rooted in the capabilities of the protagonists. 

I do tend to gush...

Ron Edwards's picture

Please feel free! Your thoughts are relevant to a lot of things that get discussed here.

For example, as part of agreeing fully with your point, here's a comparison with my own phrasing. I have stopped using the term "control" at all for years, in terms of functioning systems use. When someone has, for example, the responsibility to introduce certain information to play (prepped beforehand or not), or the responsibility to say what this or that character, or this or that aspect of the environment may be like or do, or the responsibility to make up backstory elements of a situation, that is not the same thing as controlling whatever may come of it during play, as the various real-person responsibilities regarding actions and events contact one another.

Thanks for this. I'm not getting my hopes too high, but it warms a poor heretic's heart to see people recognize that 4th Edition, whatever else it is, is a good, working game. 

Death: goodness, yes, but it's a problem in D&D. I heard that Dark Sun actually acknowledged it, somehow striving to set up characters who could step in quickly when a PC died. And, of course, playing a brave porter who picked up a sword was an option for some, though I never understood how that was meant to work.

I have more or less given up on wanting to or trying to kill PCs, unless a player specifically asks for it, at which point I ask that they prepare a backup character who can easily be slotted in. I focus more on trying to foil their plans or have the opposition succeed on theirs, or somewhere on the Cartesian plane of those outcomes.

As regards skill challenges, the DMG is front and center about how they can and should mesh with combat, but only a few published encounters bothered with it. See Dungeon Delve 11 for my favorite example. Without that, or something else that keeps the PCs from just lining up their best skill every time, without trade-off, skill challenges tend to fall flat.

(I'm aware of the wide variety of approaches out there, but many of the means to force PCs to mix up their skills are too contrived for me. Anyway, I'm happy at least that more people see the need for some kind of paced skill-resolution system, regardless of the actual system they use. 

James_Nostack's picture

My involvement in what eventually became known as the OSR occurred in 2008, more or less simultaneously with the release of 4e.

At that time, the "famous" bloggers in that little micro-scene were harshly against 4e.  They had a number of arguments, but all of it boiled down to, "We need to establish our tribal identity, and saying that Wizards of the Coast has killed 'our' game is how we're gonna do it."  

As a reader and participant in that scene, I never found any of the criticisms remotely convincing.  Okay, the aesthetics aren't to your taste; okay, you don't like the mechanics.  It doesn't follow that the game is bad or poorly designed.

So far as I can tell, 4e is one of the most rigorously designed (in the sense of having an actual goddamn vision of play and ruthlessly trying to execute on it) version of D&D around.   It's okay to dislike those design goals, but the amount of work put into it was really impressive.

The one thing that prevented me from playing more of 4e is that combat simply took a long, long time, even at low levels.  We only had 2-3 hours, and it was hard to get a satisfying chunk of fiction in that time.

Ron Edwards's picture

Some more history to fold into this: to be generously retroactive, the first publications identifiable as "OSR" were Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures, which at that time, 2003, was not a game but 3.0/3.5 adventure modules which used the familiar early-1980s form-factor. Similar publications in 2004 included Castles & Crusades (Troll Lord Games) and Masters & Minions (Behemoth3) which were both contemporary d20 but referenced physical and allegedly philosophical features of AD&D. After 2008, some 4E DCC adventures were published too. (DCC did not became its own rules set until 2012.)

The parallel process which focused on actually using (well, re-presenting) older rules begins with the first brief version of OSRIC by Stuart Marshall in 2006, better known by Matt Finch's version in 2008 much longer version in 2008 plus his other writings.

I'm not listing all the publications which were either included informally or designated themselves as such. I'm talking about the time or moment when OSR" became a thing, with minor uncertainties like what "R" stood for, but also a major uncertainty about who was going to be in it. Dragonsfoot Forum and some related blogs had been around since 2002 or 2003 ... but they had been founded in deep hatred for WotC and 3rd edition (e.g., "threetards"), so a lot of tapdancing ensued so that all these "old school d20" things could be synthesized with alleged Gygaxian-ness and alleged retroclones. The 4E DCC material and a lot of Forge-looking stuff in Fight On! come from this uncertain period.

I think 3rd edition made the OSR cut for several reasons, but was aided by 4th edition being there to take the heat as the new/betrayer thing. So you can play 3.5 published in 2003 and hold your head high as "real old school" and only a few old beardos were left to grumble about it as old-schoolness became the new rebel retro thing. Even if no one had much clue what they were circling the wagons around, or why, they could circle'em, and there was a logo, so good enough.

I rarely see people criticize 4th Edition on the basis of its mechanics. Some of the harshest critics are more than happy to damn it with the faint praise of "As a combat simulator, it's really good!"

Long combat is a perennial issue, yes. Lots of people have thought a lot about how to deal with that. Many ideas have to do with mechanical changes, like more damage and fewer HP for monsters, a change the game dabbled with itself toward the end. I prefer making victory for either side something other than "Reduce the other side to 0 HP," and making a conscious effort not to correct every mistake of tactics or rules. I won't belabor the matter here, but if you feel like sticking with the game at all, you'll find support and suggestions.

As for "old school," I feel that it retains the fundamental, if unspoken, definition of "what I had fun with when I was a kid."

Helma's picture

Just want to let you know. It's the fault of you two and this engaged and positive discussion that I now have ordered a copy of the players handbook for 4e and will have another role playing game on my list. Ok, Ross had a not so small part in that too. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and I hope, if there will be another con4er I'll find out and have time and courage enough to participate.

LorenzoC's picture

I understand it's too late for this, but the best way to approach 4E rules is the small, digest size "Rules Compendium" that was released towards the end of the edition's life.

It's the most honest and understandable D&D rulebook among those I've read. 

Aside from that... welcome onboard! I hope it will be an interesting experience for you. 

The Rules Compendium is definitely worth getting, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for someone who wants to make a character and play.

I think plenty of criticism can be levelled at 4E on the basis of mechanics, especially if you've been with it from the start (in some ways, I now regret that my group has). I've just watched Mike Mearls (speaking in 2017) say the story with 4E has been running out of runway as you're trying to get the plane up in the air, and that aligns perfectly with my experience of it, playing it more or less since it was published for the next 2 years or so.

Arguably, that's more of a publishing schedule critiscism than a mechanics criticism, but ultimately it meant that at the table, the mechanics were extremely uneven, with flashes of brilliance here, and deeply flawed there.

I sort of reget not coming upon it later, when the flaws were better understood and addressed.

I definitely think it's due for a renaissance. It's definitely the most underservedly overlooked of D&Ds. One of the worst flaws of D&D 5E is reacting directly to 4E by actively trying to dissociate itself from that design, even the parts that worked like a charm.

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