My 4th Edition Mindset

Outside a smattering of voyages into a few modules from earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons when I was still a teenager, my tabletop roleplaying game experience has been shaped by 4th Edition D&D. It was not until this past weekend I realized how much 4th Edition has influenced my view of how games should play and run.

Readers of the blog will note that I have spent some time playtesting a new roleplaying game called Blade Raiders. The game is very different from 4th Edition D&D and it still feels great to play. During the start of a new campaign with the system, I found myself slipping into a “4e” mindset – for better and for worse. Below, I process a few observations about habits learned while playing (almost exclusively) 4th Edition over the past two-plus years and discuss our first session of a Blade Raiders campaign.

Building a Badass

When I created a character for our playtest earlier in the year, I experimented with the Blade Raiders system and chose a combination of non-magical and magical talents. I certainly wanted to create an effective character but I was more interested in learning the system and trying new approaches to character design. But for the campaign, the “4e switch” flipped in my head and I was dissecting the various talent options in a surgical fashion.

  • How can I get the greatest bonus to hit? 
  • How can I max out my damage per turn?
  • What talents will be most useful to me in the most circumstances?

Character optimization is not unique to 4th Edition D&D, but it is where I learned that craft! The Character Builder was (and remains to be) a wonderful tool to experiment with character creation; with a few clicks, one can see just how effective his or her character will be in combat and non-combat situations. It teaches the player the importance of statistical bonuses from a combination of skills, feats, traits and powers. And perhaps more importantly, it encourages and rewards that type of optimizing behavior. After all, why wouldn’t a player choose the options that produce the most damaging effects in combat?

Bryce Brevard, The Brigand of Burnigon
Bryce Brevard, The Brigand of Burnigon

So I examined he options in Blade Raiders and based my choices on the questions above. I chose talents that gave me bonuses to attack and damage rolls. I basically created a 4th Edition Striker in the Blade Raiders system. And my character, Bryce Brevard, was absolutely death on wheels. While I racked up kills and rejoiced in my ability to slay foes quickly, I experienced a creeping doubt that I was being “that guy.” You know, that guy on a basketball team that takes all the shots and celebrates the win by himself while his teammates look on in annoyance. It dawned on me that other people around the table were playing Blade Raiders – but in many ways, I was still playing 4th Edition D&D.

Dice Versa

One feature of 4th Edition D&D is a DM and player get to roll a lot of dice. Seriously, a sh*t-ton of dice. I love dice – even when I hate them – and it is great to roll them during a gaming session. Fourth Edition D&D gives players multiple dice to roll throughout the course of gameplay. A single round of actions from one low-level character in 4th Edition will likely require at least one d20 roll and multiple damage dice depending on the weapon and power used. By mid-paragon, my rogue was rolling a d20 followed by as much as six d8s for damage with one power against a single target. And more dice were added if the rogue used an Action Point or some type of magical item.

One die for my left-hand sword, one die for my right-hand sword and one die for damage. Give me a few sessions and the weapons/dice will have individual names!
One die for my left-hand sword, one die for my right-hand sword and one die for damage. Give me a few sessions and the weapons/dice will have individual names!

The sheer number of die rolls in a session of 4th Edition is pretty staggering. I may not play 4th Edition again for a while, but if some of my fellow researchers out there are interested, I’d love to know just how many dice are rolled during a standard three-to-four hour session – how many d20s, d10s, d8s, etc. The die-happiness of 4th Edition is something I took for granted until I played Blade Raiders. The game mechanics are built on one type of die – a d10. That fancy new set of dice I have? Not needed. A lone d10 is rolled for an attack and a lone d10 is rolled for damage. Weapons have a modifier; a dagger is d10-4 (min 1) whereas a warhammer is d10+5. As a veteran of 4e, even the fact that I only had one d10 in front of me was too much to take during our playtest. I had to use one d10 for attacks and a different d10 for damage.

In building my character, one of the considerations was finding ways to roll more dice more often. Weird? Maybe, but this is how 4th Edition has shaped my approach to tabletop RPGs – more dice equals more fun! In looking through the talent options in Blade Raiders, Dual Wielding immediately leaped off the page. It allows the player to attack twice during each round. Perfect!

Role Clarity

In addition to Dual Wielding, my talent choices included Slayer (bonus to damage) and Fighter (bonus to hit). The three talents combined to make my character, Bryce Brevard, well-prepared to lay waste to the foul creatures of Aveggor! In my mind, Bryce filled the striker roll – hit quick, hit often and hit hard. What I found as the night progressed is that thinking in terms of 4th Edition roles for my character boxed me in to expect other players to approach the game – and their character – in the same manner.

One of the really interesting things about Blade Raiders is it purposely avoids standard frameworks of classes or roles. Yes, there are two different healing-related talents and an assortment of magical talents, but they can be combined in any number of ways. Instead of taking the Fighter talent for Bryce, I could have selected from magical talents such as Mender (healing), Firecaller, Portalist or Earth Mover. I would remain a fun “striker-like” character, but I would also be able to perform some magical spells.

Every other player in the group selected a combination of magical and non-magical talents, creating interesting hybrids along the way. Many of which I did not know how to conceptualize around the table, “Wait, one second you’re wielding a greatsword, the next you’re firing a bow and now you’re casting a spell to move rocks around to form a stairway for the party? What is happening?” In a long-running 4th Edition party, you get to learn each character’s powers intimately – sometimes better than the other player using the character! (but that is another discussion). And you know what the characters are meant to do.

Tank. Healer. The roles are clearly defined. Even those players who get fancy with multiclassing are still primarily serving in one role for the party. Blade Raiders allows for more flexible – perhaps not in the total of options available but in how they can be combined. It provides more cognitive flexibility to character creation and gameplay, which I learned I need more of after starting the campaign!

My Myopic Mindset

I truly love 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the edition that led me back into gaming after a long break and I enjoyed many a day and night playing it with various groups over the past three years; I hope to continue playing it from time to time. The design of the game very much shapes the way players and their characters can function. This was not entirely noticeable to me until after I started another campaign in a different system. Having not played much of other tabletop RPGs, my view of how to play a RPG is quite limited.

My tendency to think in 4th Edition terms will continue, and that is not a bad thing. Another fun feature in Blade Raiders is that players can create their own powers by spending Career Advancement Points (think of a combination of XP and Action Points) and discussing with the Storyteller (DM). For example, I could create “martial powers” that cause “status effects,” allow me to disarm a combatant or perhaps provide a bonus to an ally attacking the same target. I could do anything.

And that is at the same time wonderful, challenging and unsettling. I just hope the other adventurers will allow Bryce to get his bearings in the world before kicking him out of the party!

I wonder, how have others had their approach to RPGs shaped by their “primary” game of choice? How do you remain flexible when playing different systems?

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

24 thoughts on “My 4th Edition Mindset”

  1. Your post suggests that you’re actually regretful for building a good character. You didn’t do anything wrong, the only thing you did built a character that worked well with the system. All 4e did was just taught you how to do this. Compare this to other players who may have built based on character concepts without a good foundation on how the game system works or plays.

    I think what’s the problem is that since more game systems started offering choice, they started allowing people to build in ways that the developers didn’t intend or in ways that the dev didn’t understand. Players who build to understanding how the game works or is intended to work, often build characters that work in their heads but not as well on practice.

    To me, this demonstrates that when using any new system, the first two games at the table need to be short, and then reset immediately. It gives everyone at the table a chance to start new with a better understanding of how the game works, even if they want to play the same character over. Usually you get much better characters the second or third time through.

    1. Replace the sentence:
      Players who build to understanding how the game works or is intended to work, often build characters that work in their heads but not as well on practice.

      Players who build without understanding how the game works or how it’s intended to work, often build characters that play well in their heads but not in practice.

    2. I would not say regretful of the choices I made with character design, but in how I approached gameplay. In retrospect, it felt a bit close minded. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Bryce thoroughly!

      And I think my idea or your idea of how a character “should work” is an individual difference. I focused on combat but they are many other priorities that are equally valid for a game.

      I think the idea of test driving a system before locking into a character is a sound one. We did that with the playtest… and then I went right back to my 4e Striker! 😉

      1. I’m not going to say that someones non-combat focused character is wrong. What I will say is that, if you build a non-combat character in a game system that focuses on combat, you might not have a good time. If a DM tries to run a system that really only does combat well, and tries to turn it into a Political Intrigue game, the DM might not have a very good time.

        I see a repeated pattern of how games should be played verses how people want them to play or expect them to be played. D&D is a good example. D&D does dungeon crawls very very well. You can do political intrigue but it doesn’t stress D&D’s best points. I’m not sure what Blade Raiders does well yet, I need to see.

        But do write us more on how the campaign does and if you feel like being specially nice, I wouldn’t mind if you threw up an ‘Actual Play’ podcast of one of your sessions. I want to hear more of how Blade Raiders plays.

    3. On the subject of optimizing, that’s an issue with many other RPGs. They often try to create a meaty system with feats/talents/etc., but don’t go through the rigor necessary to create a balanced game. Along comes a D&D 3E/4E or similar system player, and the system can fall short (often because options stack too well in some cases, not well enough in others). Our group tried the Iron Kingdoms RPG and found it really suffered from that. There were rogue options that were so clearly (to us) superior to all other options, that they became “must-takes” and made the game dull. But, to players of a different mindset the problem didn’t exist. They made different options and the game was fun (and if they weren’t effective, they didn’t tie that to the feat system at all!). With a combination of player approaches, we had the Id DM effect: some players were incredibly dominant, others this funny jack-of-all-trades style that was interesting but didn’t compare.

      For me, this is a design issue. It isn’t a great idea to create PC options that will dominate play if the game isn’t about that. If a game isn’t going to balance things carefully, but still wants those kinds of options, it should probably put some limits in play (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay places a limit on how many bonus-granting bits can be used at one time, for example). It comes back to what the game is trying to achieve. If the world is full of PCs that dabble in various things, then it should probably not provide options that come together to make a dominant PC.

      1. The idea of optimization and balance (which you commented on below) is interesting and something that only Grant can speak to with his design approach. I think his goal was to create a game that was easy to jump into and provided a lot of flexibility for both the GM and players. In playing the game, I think he has done that.

        If the goal of the game is “kill monsters quickly in melee combat,” then Bryce is probably the closest thing to an optimized starting character. But that is not the goal of Blade Raiders; it just happened to be the way I approached the game. Other players approached character creation from different routes.

        I know this can cut both ways, but when all the characters are balanced, it somewhat makes the choice irrelevant. Strip away the flavor text and most 4e powers do damn near the same thing: x(weapon dice) + mondier . That is not a bad thing; it means no one player feels under-powered. But it also means characters become a bit interchangeable, and that has it’s drawbacks as well.

        I wonder if a game system can a character creation and combat system that is both flexible/open-ended and balanced?.Is it one continuous variable (think hot/cold) or two independent variables (think bass and treble settings on a stereo)?

  2. I really appreciate the way you looked at the attitude behind the character from the perspective of two different systems and what both D&D4e and Blade Raiders speak to character creation. My first serious (ha!) RPG was D&D4e and corralling a group of min/max, char op players was my first foray into the system so I was constantly thinking about how to mitigate the insane bonuses and keep things leveled mathematically for game balance. It is refreshing to see a system with many options that don’t boost the numbers. My first character in Blade Raiders (granted I haven’t played yet so my experience is largely theoretical) is a blacksmith first. He is also an enchanter and finally a fighter. I had some very deliberate reasons for putting those pieces together that make sense thematically and in the game I want to play. When I read the magic talents, at first I was disappointed at least mathematically. “You mean I can only use this power once a day essentially?!?” Then I realized that almost the entirety of talent’s spell list is opened up to the caster as well as the fact that the use of combat magic only really works in pockets of the game world means every character needs to have back up plans.
    I introduced the game to a group of guys I’ve played with before (all 4e veterans) who were looking to get a new game going and the freedom from a system of role necessities was really exciting to them. There is a definitive difference when a system takes the time to keep the bulkiness down and allow the simplicity (1d10 for everything) to the loose structure of player options. They immediately started blending talents into different combinations to pull out different archetypes of stories that were very organic and I never once heard a class name thrown out. They were captured by the system as was I.
    As you said, there are a great many wonderful things about 4e and the lessons I picked up as a player and a DM formed my gaming style today, but it is nice to branch out and see the sensibilities of a new system. Looking at a game through the experience and vernacular of another game system gives perspective on just what you can do and what is possible with it. Also, super jealous that you get to play with the creator of the game!

    1. Yes, I didn’t post a picture but Grant ran us through the first portion of an adventure he came up with. And he created a specific map for us as a prop. It’s not often the designer/artist for a game gives you a prop that is in the same style of the rulebook!

      I will probably write about this at some point in the future, but my wife jumped into the game and enjoyed herself. I think the ease of character creation helped, but the “clean” gameplay made it possible to focus on story elements. I’m not saying Blade Raiders is the only game that does this, but it certainly hooked her more than 4e. I also take responsibility for that; I was DMing when she tried it and focused the game on trying to teach her all the rules instead of creating an interesting story. Lesson learned!!

  3. Spot on analysis.

    I find I have an aversion to games where math can break the system. No modifier in Apocalypse World goes above 3, for example, or a situational +4.

    The primary difference, here, is that I found other games supported what I wanted to do while 4E largely supports combat. The closest I think I’ve recently come to a traditional leveling-up, increasing-bonuses game is Savage Worlds, and that’s just a guess: I haven’t advanced yet.

    I believe the players in my group share your 4E mindset. Nothing is wrong with that. But when I run Apocalypse World, I don’t roll even a single die. I find not rolling giant piles and counting enormous modifiers gives me more time to focus on what matters to me: the fiction.

    I believe I’ll be citing this in one of my first posts, about group social contracts: why some groups fail and others persist.

    1. That is a good point, and I’ve written a bit about that here and there. Our group never had a discussion about expectations or such. I am joining a group of players who have been gaming in a variety of systems for approximately 15-20 years. So their norms are established and none of them have played 4e all that much. So I think my thoughts above were amplified by that, you know? Be sure to send me the link to your post. 🙂

  4. On the broader subject of playing other RPGs, I love doing that. I’ve generally needed another RPG to keep my D&D from becoming stale. Other RPGs have really influenced how I look at adventure design, PC development, and role-playing.

    Games like Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, and Arcanis are all approachable but have different takes on how a player can express what their PC is about and trying to achieve. I would especially recommend Arcanis for you, as it is d20-based but has some really interesting takes on Initiative, combining spell and melee, and combat options (how your spell or weapon attacks can be modified to be interesting). For a great look at how an RPG can try to suffuse story into mechanics, Legend of the Five Rings is great. The story/setting concept of the Clans really comes through in the mechanics, and there are many ways the rules promote heavy role-playing.

    One way to remain flexible is to play an intro game. Maybe this is a fast-play adventure, or maybe just something short you put together for 1-3 sessions. Whip up a PC quickly, taking the bits that you find evocative. Don’t focus on your typical approach to PCs (whether optimization or something else)… just go with what jumps out at you. Play a few sessions to get a feel for what the game offers. Then, go back and create a character in a more typical manner for a longer campaign. This approach might help by exposing you a bit more to the system and getting you into its mindset. Your real PC will likely end up closer to the intended goal of the RPG.

  5. I have to say, that’s it’s amusing to me to see you try to optimize in other games and saying you learned it in 4e, when the reality is your main 4e char (j’hari) was *completely* unoptimized, and didn’t even reach the basic “designer-level” benchmarks.

    But! It’s good to see that you are still getting in some good gaming. 😀

    1. You know that scene in Christmas Vacation when Clark finally gets the lights to work and he’s so excited. And then his father-in-law, Art, comes up to him and says, “The little lights aren’t twinkling.”

      You’re Art.


      1. Haahahaha. Well done, sir. 🙂

        Granted it wasn’t all your fault, the other players didn’t understand the basic concepts of the edition, and it was a ridiculously low wealth game (4e isn’t designed for pc’s to have less than 50% standard wealth unless they are using inherent bonuses).
        But still, you snubbed most of the good advice offered to you. It’s not that the “little light’s aren’t twinklling”, it’s that all of the lights are still off, and you’re checking for burnt out bulbs while Art is telling you that one of the surge protectors isn’t plugged in…

        But that was already a long time ago, and seriously, i’m seriously glad to see that you’ve settled into a good game, and can start applying those basic concepts now. 🙂

  6. I agree there is plenty of clarity around combat roles, but is that really that great a feature? DnD is (was?) a role playing game in the traditional sense, with actual role playing and such, not a role playing game in the computer game sense where roleplaying usually just equals fantasy environs.

    To my mind 4th Ed is great if you like power gaming and building the numbers of your character, but personally if I want to do that I play a computer game. I love tactical games but the focus on tactical combat seems to almost always result in less focus on the acting/role playing side of the game and more time in combat.

    Gobble gobble.

    1. A lack of roles has been a problem historically, but particularly in 3E. At its simplest, the problem of “need cleric” was seen in organized play at conventions across the globe. Tables would even verbally fight over a player with a cleric PC. Beyond the cleric, there were issues with duplication (more than 1 caster of a certain type, but especially less common classes such as bard and druid).

      What roles do is first sit upon a framework of stable math that allows classes to work in balance to one another (or even duplicates). Secondly, they clarify what a class does. If I bring a Hunter, and I tell the table that it is primarily a Controller, they understand what I bring. That might sound like it is only about power-gaming, but it isn’t. Sure, combat is front and center in 4E, but that doesn’t mean it always is in individual games (I had about one combat per 4 hours in my 4E home campaign).

      Roles are really good for a balanced system like 4E. I suspect D&D Next has abandoned them because they want to move away from class equity. When a wizard isn’t the same as another ‘controller’, then we can abandon the role terminology. That’s especially true since in older editions controller wasn’t always an accurate description (some of the most optimized wizards in 3E were about control, but it isn’t the only way to play the class).

      1. Most combats should last around 4 rounds. Expect table variance on how long that actually takes.In my recent experience it’s about an hour at level 16.

      2. @Wayne All things being equal, I find encounter duration really escalates at each successive tier of play. But all things aren’t equal. I’ve seen a dad tell his son to hurry up, then sit and contemplate his own options. Between the two of them, it was a really slow level 1 table. Very experienced players can cruise through Epic fights, especially once the first two levels in that tier have passed and the players know their PCs well. Encounter design is a big part of things too.

        With organized play we’ve really focused on how design can impact length. That’s something that we often targeted in Ashes of Athas playtesting by asking tables how long each encounter was for them and why. We can then go back and adjust the encounter. It can be done on the fly as well. We recently had an encounter that wasn’t very well playtested (ran out of time). I ran it in the first convention slot and it was easy to see that while fun, it could run 2 hours due to monster choices (high level foes so the threat would be high, but the HPs meant foes didn’t drop quickly enough). We shaved off a lot of hit points and increased damage. It was a huge improvement, retaining higher pressure against PCs (exciting!) but foes dropping more often (more sense of accomplishment) and the encounter ending sooner (more role-playing and investigation).

        The duration of an encounter is that combination of player approach and author design. We can help players speed up as DMs. As designers we can really make fights more dynamic. We’ve run combats that consistently were only 25 minutes long at dozens of tables. We’ve also deliberately written longer encounters, because players wanted that length in playtesting – a gladiatorial arena fight was one we worked to speed up and players wanted it to stay long because they enjoyed it so much. So, we made the second fight into an optional role-playing encounter during conventions.

        At the extreme end, we’ve had adventures with 5 combats run in under 4 hours, because we designed them to be very low threat and quick. The focus was around decisions, lore, and the sense you were crashing through the forces in an ancient temple.

  7. I started with Dragon Quest, Basic D&D and AD&D all, more or less, at the same time.
    It took us maybe two sessions before we started to work out how to game the system and optimise the power of our PCs. We’re blokes; that’s what we do. Competitiveness is hardwired into most of us.
    Ironically, 32 years later, it’s in our 4E games where we’ve actually focussed less on optimisation, probably because the game is better balanced.
    Anyway, I’m just offering a different point-of-view to a lot of others. It’s still a valid POV, even if not many share it! 🙂

  8. Interesting read, very different gameplay style from me and the folks I gamed with back in the day but it aligns with what I hear from other players who started mainly with D&D 4ed (actually even some 3rd). I guess I would be said to have a D&D Basic or D&D 1st Ed Mindset. I started somewhere around 1979 with the Holmes Basic D&D and continued through BECM D&D Basic with some AD&D 1st Ed elements thrown in, as well as more Sci-Fi stuff like Gamma World, Traveller, Star Frontiers. Recently I’m starting to get back into gaming after a long gap. I originally came into RPGs mainly with the heavy focus on RP aspects, and the combats were things that just happened or didn’t as the adventure unfolded. When combat happened, it was usually quick and very damaging even if you won. The focus wasn’t so much on building an optimized character but on building the character that you thought would be an interesting one to RP, quirks and deficiencies (usually resulting from a crappy stat role) included.
    So I’ve come in looking for, I think, a different sort of RPG experience based on my D&D Basic of 1st Ed Mindset. The first “modern” RPG I’ve played is Pathfinder, starting last year and taking in a few games since then. I really like the setting and feel of the game world, but the mechanics seem to REALLY weigh down the gameplay to me (Role Playing loosing out to Roll Playing), too much rolling and diddling with modifiers and bonuses, too much like work (part of my job involves building and juggle complex spreadsheets so I’m not “afraid of math”). I don’t have any direct experience with how this compares to D&D 4th Ed, only what I read in places like this or hear from people. Now by contrast I recently played a game of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu in which most everything is straight d100 Percentage roll based. Lots of fun, mechanics were very natural, flowing and non-intursive to the RP of the adventure.

    I keep hearing about newer games built on the “Old School” style of play like Dungeon Crawl Classics, Swords and Wizardry. OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord but haven’t played those yet either. With WotC trying to bring back alot of “old players” with 5th Ed I am very curious to see how they manage to meet the desires 1st Ed Mindset players like me and my old gaming group and newer 3rd and 4th Ed players considering what seems to be very large large playstyle gap between the two. Is such a thing even possible in a single game? In the mean time some of my old gaming group are looking to start-up a game of Basic D&D based on the BECMI ruleset.

    Ok, enough rambling, I’ll shut-up now. 🙂

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