I will always contend that the biggest liability to 4th edition was the way in which players simply rejected it out of hand without giving it a real chance to shine. 4th edition was released in June of 2008 and playtest for 5th was already happening in May of 2012. That’s not even four full years before your replacement is hunting for your spot.
There are many reasons for this and some of them are quite valid (like sheer number of publications in such a short span) whereas others are more subjective (combat taking too long) but in the end 4E was put out to pasture before its time.
Sadly some of the great ideas that they had never carried over to 5th edition and today we’re going to take a look at some of those things that really should not have been discarded so quickly. Honestly, some of the really great ideas from 4E were carried over but those were things that were obvious game changers, with one of the biggest being At-Will spells for casters. There are some other things though that I think deserve a look.
1 – Unaligned
Maybe it’s because I have an unreasoning hatred of those who claim that Neutral characters strive for a balance but I greatly prefer the idea of a character being unaligned as opposed to neutral. To me Neutral indicates an ambivalence towards a thing whereas unaligned makes a more definite statement about the character’s relationship to the concepts of law/chaos and good/evil even if that statement is that they don’t personally subscribe to them.
2 – Tiers of Play
Yes, D&D 5th Edition has their Tiers of Play (page 37 of the DMG) but it really doesn’t have any impact on the game. In 4E, the Tier mattered as your progressed to a Paragon Path and to your Epic Destiny. The tiers felt more tangible as you gained access to stronger feats and new ways to play.
3 – Skill Challenges
Okay so there were some issues around Skill Challenges but the central idea of staged success is amazing. Figuring out the trap isn’t a simple attribute check but an intricate mixture of Intelligence and Acrobatics and use of Thieves Tools any one of which could trigger the trap and spell doom. Skill challenges made the exploration and roleplaying aspects of the game more exciting and dynamic.
4 – Monster Knowledge for Skills
4E broke down what monster types were covered by what skill and provided guidelines as to what a character would know. A DC 15 would you get you the name and type of creature, a DC 20 would get you its powers etc. Arcana covered Elemental, Fae and Shadow, Dungeoneering covered Aberrant and so forth. This solves so many “does my character know…” questions and it’s implementation works very, very well.
5 – Special Materials
What sounds better, Leather Armor +1 or Feyleather? Special materials add a depth to the lore of the world and many DMs include them into their games anyway but having it in the core book is a great way to spark the imagination. In my own game I have materials that confer abilities as opposed to simple bonuses – like a crystal that makes bludgeoning weapons do psychic damage instead. Much cooler that a simple bonus to hit and damage.
6 – This Chart
It’s a nice and simple and even elegant way to pace out your story. Replace milestone with Inspiration maybe because I know DMs and Players struggle with how to award it and I’ve found that if players know when they’ll get it they’re more inclined to use it. I still fall back on aspects of this chart when working on pacing for a game session.
7 – Monster Roles
In 4E the Monsters have roles they fill in an encounter, just as characters have roles within the group and they add so much depth to an encounter that it is a true shame that 5E took a step backwards in their monster presentation. I really liked how the monster roles got you thinking about the location of the encounter – if you have artillery you’re going to want an encounter with cover and distance, if you have skulkers you’re going to want the encounter to feature shadows and ways to sneak. If I could have just one thing from 4E for the DMs brought into 5th it would be monster roles.
8 – Minions and Solo Monsters
Okay these are monster Roles but the lack of inclusion of these into 5th just boggles my mind and they deserve their own mention. Minions make your PCs look bad ass, Solo Monsters make victories feel earned. Both have a vital place in the encounter pantheon for different reasons. If you want to portray Heroic Fantasy then you need enemies that will fall to the heroes by the score and you need monsters that will absolutely wreck their day so that winning takes skill and luck and perseverance. That’s the niche that minions and solo monsters fit. I love that in 4E core in the first Monster Manual there is a level 3 solo monster (a young white dragon!) so low level characters can get in on the epic-ness pretty early on.
9 – Adventures not Campaigns
I’m not a big fan of each new adventure for 5E being a new campaign for levels 1-10 or 1-12 or similar. As far as I can tell the only first party published campaign to go to level 20 is Mad Mage which is a pretty bad ratio. 4E may not had had a ton of adventures during it’s short lifespan but they did provide some support for the entire level structure all the way to level 30. I know the day of 1st party 22-34 page adventures for levels 6-8 or 11-14 etc. are done (but there are 3rd parties who fill this gap) but I don’t think it’s asking too much for the company to provide support for their game through to the higher levels. This dropped off in 4th but is mostly absent in 5th.