On The Sublimity of Fourth Edition

What's this?

It's a list of good ideas, that's what.

1. Unique powers for monsters.

They standardized the crap out of this edition. And yet, it allowed them to do things like this.

Ferocity (when reduced to 0 hit points)
   The minotaur warrior makes a melee basic attack.


Whirlwind Dash (standard; recharge 6 ) ✦ Fire
   The firelasher can move up to twice its speed. It can move through spaces occupied by other creatures without provoking opportunity attacks. It must end its move in an unoccupied space. Any creature whose space the firelasher enters takes 10 fire damage.

Grant monsters special, specific, powers that both A) represent their theme and B) aren't just spell effects or basic attacks.

Of course, Mr. Pedant! Powers have been around since basic, plenty were listed in the 1e and 2e monster manual, and Pathfinder has plenty of 'special abilities' for each monster. However, this was the first edition that really approached this problem from the perspective of 'what thematic power does this monster have?' rather than focusing on the 'basic attack' and then figuring out some other stuff that the monster might do. The fact that 90% of monster powers ended up being "Melee Attack" has nothing to do with the idea, but the implementation.

The first time you hit an Owlbear but good and it lets out a stunning shriek because you hit it, well, that's cool.

2. Have game changing spells be available without a wizard and contain a resource cost.

If you've ever created content for a 3.x or earlier game at a high level, you know you have to account for the utility spell. Putting that spell list into rituals does a couple of cool things.

First, you no longer need 'wizards' or 'magic items' to solve problems. Have your ranger or rogue learn ritual caster, and welp, you have access to utility rituals!

Second, it makes spells that change the nature of the game or replace class abilities (Teleport, knock, water breathing) have a resource cost. Because they are separated out from standard spells, you can even eliminate the ones you don't want to have in your world, easily. Saying "That ritual doesn't exist" is easier then saying "You can't learn that spell" for a couple of logical reasons. It's easier to deny an external item, then a player ability for instance.

3. The game allows monster design to be different than character design.

This is really a tool for dungeon masters - as it allows monsters to do whatever they need to, without worrying about constructing them according to the same rules as players. It hearkens back to 1st and 2nd edition monster design. This also assists the Dungeon Master in selecting and designing encounters, because he can give his monsters whatever they want and yet it has strong guidelines for expectations and what's fair.

Head Injury Theater
4. A real attempt to create an interesting new other-world cosmology.

Hey. Hey, you. Groggy. Grognard. Things don't always have to be the same.

I'm really talking to myself because I also like to have things be the way I think they should be in my head. But new things can be cool too.

The old planar structure was cool - the reinvention for planescape was cool, and really, a serious attempt by 4e to create a new planar structure focused on playability was also cool!

5. Presentation of the setting through game content.

I imagine this was entirely unintentional. An actual quote from 4e gameplay. "This spell (speak with dead) seems to imply that there are an infinite number of visual sensors recording information in the world!"

Annnnnd, nerfed.

But still, this is the way it should be done.

6. Flatter math.

There is some benefit to the regularity in skill increases. No tracking points. Just plus 1/2 level. Useful, quick, flatter. The longer things like "doors" and "walls" can remain an obstacle for your players, the better!

Now, of course this doesn't mean that the very things I praise it for weren't done terribly elsewhere in the ruleset. But these are some of the things I keep coming back to in my own designs.

Hack & Slash


  1. 3. The game allows monster design to be different than character design.
    This, and flat, add-able monster XP I believe were already present in 1st and 2nd ed AD&D, but then screwed up in 3rd Edition. Giving gray oozes, wolverines and other inhuman monsters charisma scores never made sense, while skills and feats were irritating even when they made sense. The other pet peeve of mine was calculating EL (the main factor in XP awarded) from disparate CRs. It became so much simpler from a GM's point of view to have single monsters, or at least just one monster type, in a single encounter. 4th Ed brought back a straight XP value for each monster.

    1. The way 3E awards were set up, you could generally just add up XP values for each monster according to their individual CRs and it'd be the same as if you'd figured the EL for the whole encounter

  2. 1) I agree that monster powers provided a design space that encouraged giving each creature unique thematic abilities. This is a characteristic worth examining more closely. However, I believe 4th Edition executed this poorly. Many creatures had similar powers. As the Alexandrian pointed out, the game basically reinvented the wheel for each monster and their abilities.

    2) In many ways, I dislike rituals. It felt like a very clumsy way to make up for the fact that spellcasting took an entirely combat-oriented approach. However, I never considered this stance before. Shifting paradigm changing spells to rituals allows players to worry less about party composition and play what class they desire. In my Pathfinder campaign, I had to give my players a witch to fill the role of a wizard and healer since everyone wanted to play martial characters and build towards damage-dealing. So, this is a notion I appreciate.

    3) While I love the elegance of the PC generation rules also being the NPC generation rules, I totally agree with you here.

    4) I’m all for developing a new and interesting cosmology, but didn’t 4th Edition axe Planescape? The heart of Planescape is a setting where concepts of philosophy and morality take physical form, which made Planescape a very intriguing and thought-provoking setting to run. Taking away half the alignments and restructuring the planes by merely physical characteristics completely undermines the theme of Planescape. 4th Edition Planescape is only Planescape in name, not in spirit.

    5) Totally agree, though I would argue 4th Edition did not present the setting very well through content due to the abundance of dissociated mechanics. I feel 3.5e and Pathfinder accomplished this more. For example, I always loved how the resurrection spells indicated that you could not bring someone back from the dead who died of old age. Pathfinder’s setting took advantage of this and made a setting character who’s a god-king who’s actually a mortal that’s desperately trying to find a way to gain immortality as he’s approaching venerable age.

    6) I agreed! Flatter math is always welcome.

    Overall, yeah, I agree that 4th Edition had many good ideas, but poor execution.

    1. Yeah, I was trying to be positive in my post above. But clearly many of these good ideas (like monster powers) were implemented in less than ideal ways. (most monster powers are 'hit ac, do damage').

    2. It's a shame, really. Making monster abilities listed in their entry was a good move rather than make you look it up from a list. I liked many of their ideas, even the ones they did not implement. I read that they considered having races give abilities as you leveled up, which would have added a whole new dimension. On that note, I did like how races felt more mechanically meaningful in 4th Edition. In PF/3.5e, core races are mostly just ability score adjustments and circumstantial skill bonuses.

    3. "spellcasting took an entirely combat-oriented approach."
      So were monster powers. If compare a monster stat block in 4e to 3.x, you'll note that many non-combat abilities of 3.x monsters aren't listed.
      4e need not a game only about combat, but the rules are focused on making balanced combat encounters in which each player participant can contribute.
      The rest of the game is up to the individual table.
      By having the rest of the game less defined, each player can still contribute because they aren't as limited by definition as 3.x did to many classes.

      But I believe the designers saw that D&D, as played, was a game of combat encounters and they set out to optimize that part of play.

    4. Every class in Pathfinder has a role both in and out of combat. 4th Edition actually made it worse because you can't change your character's skills after creation.


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