Edition Wars

I’m starting this off by saying there is not one edition of D&D which is inherently better than any other.  Anyone who says so is taking the political pundit method of thinking “This is what I think therefore it’s the only right answer.”  Each edition has its strengths and its weaknesses, and yes, some of those are pure nostalgia.  So I’m going to run down what I miss from older editions of D&D (3rd edition and before, since I never played 3.5) compared to the new 4th Edition (but not as much Essentials as I haven’t messed around with the Essentials classes much aside from the Mage, which isn’t all that different in style).

Things I Miss From Previous Editions:

  • Attrition.  Two goblins used to be a valid encounter.  Sure, it was still a complete curb stomp battle, but it meant that the Cleric had to spend one of his healing powers or healing potions had to be used.  As a DM, you could nickel and dime your PCs into danger solely by having a bunch of short, quick combat encounters.
  • Traps being dangerous out of combat.  The old school trapped room just doesn’t work in this edition since you can spend healing surges as much as you want between encounters.  If a trap isn’t part of a larger encounter (multiple traps, a trap in the middle of combat, etc.), it feels more out of place in 4e than it did in previous editions.
  • Magic Whatevers of Whatever.  Since wizards, sorcerers, clerics, psionics, etc. all had a limited pool of things they could do in a day due to spell slots, a Magic Wand of Acid Arrow and a Staff of Cure Light Wounds with a bunch of charges on them were highly sought after magic items.  They let the magic user be useful in battle without having to switch over to the crossbow after the first few fights and all his/her spells were used up, and it let the cleric do a lot more healing without having to “burn” their more prepared spells for more healing.
  • Interesting tactics.  This is more a function of how many players tend to play 4e than a problem with the system, but a lot of players are exclusionary rather than inclusive when it comes to looking at their powers/skills.  In other words, they think that if it’s not on one of the cards in front of them, it’s not something they can do in combat.  This means you rarely get people trying anything interesting or cool with their characters in combat.  It gets even worse when you get the same sort of thing out of combat, where the players don’t try anything that’s not specifically allowed on the skill list.
  • More magic in magic.  If you have a copy of one of the older editions of the game, look through the spell list.  Most of them are what we would now call Utility Powers.  Spells like Armor, Fog, and Haste were almost as if not more common than spells like Magic Missile and Fireball.  I’ve had a lot of thoroughly planned encounters gone astray by a cleverly used Alter Self or Web spell.  Since these non-combat spells have been relegated to Utility Powers or worse Rituals, they’re just not as fun as they used to be.
  • Magic was strictly magic.  Want to cast a ritual?  Multiclass to Wizard.  None of this taking a single feat to be just as good at it as a wizard no matter what your class.  If you wanted to use a scroll, you needed someone of that class (Wizard for arcane scrolls, Cleric for divine, etc.) or else you needed ranks in the Use Magic Item skill.  In my current game, even though they have a Wizard, the Barbarian (with multiclass Ranger) is the one carrying the scrolls they’ve found so far because why the hell not?
  • Magic items adding bonuses to attributes.  You could get a crown that would add to your intelligence, bracers that added to your strength, boots that added to your dexterity, etc.  Because of the way the game’s set up now, you just can’t do that anymore without breaking balance.  It also means that the only way to increase an attribute is at 4th, 8th, 11th, etc. levels, and only by 1.
  • Casting times.  You see the Big Bad is about to cast a Fireball at your group.  You’re able to see this because there was a casting time in rounds for casting a spell (some just took 1 initiative step but others took multiple rounds).  While the spell was being cast but not finished, you could run up and try to hit him.  If you did, he would have to make a concentration check in order to get the spell off.  Fail it, the spell’s lost.
  • Components.  Wizards used to have to carry all kinds of random crap on them (in some cases literally as one of the components of Fireball was guano) in order to cast spells.  They weren’t usually expensive unless they were for a big ritual or powerful spell, but they added flavor to casting a spell.

Things I Don’t Miss At ALL from Previous Editions

  • THAC0.  If you’re too young to know what that means, it was a nightmare of bookkeeping.  AC started at 10 and went down for every piece of armor you wore, so leather armor meant your AC was 8.  Adding a small shield lowered it to 7.  If you had full platemail and a tower shield, your AC was -1.  Yeah, not kidding, negative numbers.  You had something called a THAC0 which stood for “To Hit Armor Class 0”.  So when you attacked, you rolled and added your bonuses (if you had any…I’ll get to that shortly).  You then compared the AC of the enemy to the roll you made on a chart.  If your roll was higher than the number on the chart, you hit.  If not, you miss.  People reminisce about combat being so much faster forget about that damn chart.  Combat was fast because, after playing a weekly game in marathons over the weekend staying up until 4 or 5 in the morning fueled by Mountain Dew, you memorized the friggin’ thing.
  • Save or DIE!  There were a lot of spells and monster attacks starting about 5th level or so and escalating from there where you rolled a saving throw.  And not a better-than-50/50 saving throw like 4e, but a specific check with a target number.  You roll badly, you die.  That’s it.  Raise Dead or roll a new character.  For DMs and players who saw the game as a challenge, this was good.  For others who wanted to actually roleplay and tell a story, it was horrible.  I had my kid gloves on all the time with my players when I ran my 3rd Edition game because I didn’t want the PCs or the important NPCs to die on just one bad roll of a d20.
  • Skill proficiencies.  This is the only time I can think of in a game where two core functions – attacks and skills – used completely different methods.  Attacks: Roll d20 hoping to roll high, add modifier, compare to THAC0 chart, see if you hit.  Skills: Roll percentile dice hoping to roll low, compare to your proficiency score, see if you succeeded.  It was clunky and frankly more than a little nuts.
  • Varying experience for class.  Depending on your class, you leveled when you reached different XP totals.  Fighters leveled at 2000XP, Thieves at 1750XP, Wizards at 2250XP.  No, it made no sense at all to me then or now.  Then there were the little things that affected your experience.  A thief got bonus XP for treasure they stole.  Fighters lucky enough to roll a 16 or higher Strength got a 10% bonus to XP.  Meanwhile, Wizards (who had the longest to go between levels) had to spend XP to cast certain spells or rituals!
  • Level eating attacks.  Creatures like vampires used to “eat” levels from characters when they nit.  In old editions, this meant you actually went down a level.  In 3rd, it was changed to a “negative level” whatever that means.  It was a nightmare in bookkeeping and just not any fun.  I want my characters to get more powerful, not less!  Even as a DM, the more powerful my players’ characters are, the more fun stuff I can throw at them without having to wear the kid gloves.

Things I Love About 4e:

  • Every class is as easy to learn as every other.  No more pulling rank over who plays the Fighter because he’s boring and just stands there swinging his sword.  Every single class now acts like every other one while still keeping that unique feel to each one.  Again, the Essentials line messes with this a little since most classes don’t get a ton of powers like they used to, but even the fighter still has options beside “I swing, roll a 17 to hit, do 7 damage.”
  • Simple rules, many exceptions.  I can teach you how to play D&D in two sentence.  You tell the DM what you want your character to do, then you roll a d20 die.  Add modifiers to the number on the die, and your DM will tell you how well or poorly you do what you attempted.  Seriously, that is it as far as actual rules to D&D 4e are.  The other 300 pages of the Rules Compendium are simply going into detail what that modifier you add to the die roll is or things you don’t even have to do that for.  I’ve seen completely green players go in one encounter from having to ask which die is the d20 to asking if they get combat advantage by shifting to a specific square if the PC on the other side has a condition.  There has never been an edition of D&D that was so simple to just pick up and play.
  • The character builder.  Online or offline, this is a very powerful tool that Wizards of the Coast has given us.  I can create a character faster in the Character Builder than I ever could in previous editions, even with the greatly reduced number of options.  What takes time is fiddling with the various options like feats, powers, skills, etc. for optimization.  When you’re done, the new character sheets and power cards are perfectly laid out so you can immediately figure out what you need to figure out.  Also – and this is the important part – it does all the math for you!  It’s as far removed from that damn THAC0 chart as you can get!
  • Reskinning.  You can redescribe anything you want in terms of how almost anything in the game works.  You want to run a steampunky game with more tech?  There’s no mechanical difference between a longbow and a Colt 1911 unless you want there to be.  Can’t find a kobold that does exactly what you want it to do?  Take that goblin in Monster Manual 3 and call it a kobold.  I wrote an entire post about reskinning before I even knew that was the name for it.  It’s both a roleplayer and a DM’s best friend.
  • Improv.  4e was built for this more than any other edition.  As long as you have some version of the Monster Manual, the Monster Vault, or even just a print-out from the online Compendium or Adventure Tools of monsters; you can completely run an adventure with just a few moment’s notice if you’re capable of improv DMing.  Since all the math’s done for you in many cases, you don’t need to take as much prep time if you’re good at off-the-cuff DMing.  Sure, it helps to be prepared, but if you have to scrap your game for some reason (you built it around a PC whose player had car trouble or family problems pop up just before the game was to start), you can make a new adventure in just a matter of moments to fill in the gap.

Whatever edition you decide to play, it’s completely up to you.  These are my personal feelings based on my experiences with other editions.  It’s very possible the groups I played with when I played 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D either used the rules wrong or just taught me wrong.  Play whatever edition you and your players enjoy playing and don’t let anyone else tell you that you’re wrong for doing it as long as you’re having fun.  And if you think that your opinions of the various editions are right and everyone else is wrong?  Just remember Wheaton’s Law before you post.

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 4:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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