#RPGaDay 2017 Day Four: Why the 4E Hate?

On day four of #RPGaDay, we ask the question: which RPG have you played the most since August 2016?

There are two games I play regularly: Dungeons & Dragons 4E for an Eberron campaign and Princess: The Hopeful, a fan hack of Chronicles of Darkness for the magical girl genre. Beyond that (and discounting live games, which are overwhelmingly Chronicles of Darkness 1st and 2nd Edition), probably Monsterhearts. Honestly, I prefer to play lots of different things over any one system forever. I don’t even want to play just one edition of a system in the case of D&D! My quest over the next few years is to play broadly, rather than deeply (though ideally I would like to find depth in everything I play) – experience as many different games as possible and challenge my assumptions about systems.

Why the 4E Hate?

“In 4E everyone was a wizard” – Griffin McElroy, The Adventure Zone (possibly slightly paraphrased as I couldn’t remember which episodes I heard it in to check the exact wording)

This is such an emotive topic. People get really passionate about different editions (I’ve talked about edition wars before and how pointless they are – I’d much rather every edition was seen as a new approach that didn’t invalidate the old ways, or older editions were released into the wild so others could pick them up), but there’s a surprising amount of hate for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I mean, I get it, it was a paradigm-shifting game in a line that embodied the quintessential roleplaying game for many people. I think that if the designers of 4E had released it as an independent fantasy system, it would have got a lot more traction because it wouldn’t have been held up against the editions that came before and people wouldn’t have got defensive because they felt it was telling them to play their favourite game differently.

There is some validity to the idea that a new edition of D&D heralds the sweeping away of the old edition, as anyone who loves 4E can attest with the switch of support to 5E (especially the character builder, which seriously needs some love). Wizards of the Coast tends to support whichever is their primary edition rather than keeping properties running alongside one another, as White Wolf does. Also, I totally hated 4E when it first came out, so I know how you feel, bro. I didn’t start gaming till I was at university, because honestly I’d just never been around fellow gamers until that point. I played some D&D computer games and read fantasy novels, but I’d never been anywhere near a copy of an RPG book – they weren’t in mainstream book shops back then, and living in Durham, the nearest nerd shop was Newcastle and I didn’t know about it anyway. I had no access point into the community. So when I got to university and discovered gaming, my horizons kind of exploded outwards. My world got so much larger. I instantly loved gaming and the edition of D&D that was out at the time was 3.5. In fact, it was the heyday of 3.5, right slap bang between 3.5’s release and 4E’s development. So to me, that was what D&D was.

When 4E came out, it was a serious culture shock. For a start, I wasn’t used to the clean lines and minimalist design that we now see in lots of modern RPGs. 3.5 was cluttered and difficult to navigate, but every page was inspiring and flavourful. 4E got right down to brass tacks, acknowledging that the beauty of the game was in the playing. It has nice artwork but leafing through it didn’t give me the kind of feelings that 3.5 did (and later 5E would). So, not a great start. For ages I only played 4E under protest, complaining the whole time. And then, somewhere along the way, something changed. I started to have fun. The most common complaints I’ve heard about 4E are that it’s just a glorified tactical boardgame/wargame, its system is lacking outside combat and that everyone is a wizard.

To address these points: the tactics game is strong in 4E, because honestly? That’s the point of the system. To complain that it’s good at doing that seems short-sighted. However, I get the complaint that it therefore is less open to improvisation. A valid concern, for sure, if that’s the kind of game you want to play. A weakness of the system is that it’s easy to get lazy and just say “yeah, I’ll just Twin Strike them” or spend so much time lining up a beautifully chained attack that devastates the enemy that you forget to describe anything or care about how the combat looks and feels. I feel myself slipping into that right now, because it can be hard to feel like you have permission to do something other than use your power as it says on the card. However, this is a failing on my part rather than the game’s – like every RPG, there will be certain habits it encourages and discourages, traps to fall into. In many ways, it’s not that different from the concepts behind Powered by the Apocalypse: characters have a limited number of moves that they must fit the action around, because constraints foster creativity. And sometimes it’s really nice to be able to fall back on a super cool daily where you get to be a big damn hero, without fearing that you’re asking too much of the spotlight. Because the rules have it written in black and white that your character can do this thing, and it’ll be awesome.

As to whether the system is lacking outside combat, I disagree. I mean, I agree in the sense that there are other games that manage social influence and investigation way, way better, but 4th Ed’s rules on skill challenges and more freeform skill uses are just fine by me. I just played a session this very evening in which we spent the whole time on two investigative and social adventures and pretty much talked our way through everything. It was awesome, not something I’d want all the time, but the system worked completely fine for it. If you’re going to criticise a heroic fantasy game for lacking more complex social and investigative systems, at least compare it to something like AGE, in which there are cool things like roleplaying stunts to add complexity. There are areas for improvement, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the fairly light way that 4th Ed deals with these kinds of challenges.

So, the “everyone’s a wizard” defence. This is the one that rubs me up the wrong way most – don’t worry if you have said this to me in the past, as I totally get this is just a matter of opinion for the most part. However, the concept that it is a bad thing for everyone to be a wizard comes out of the fundamental assumption that only wizards get to have cool powers and a suite of options for things to do. Look at Powered by the Apocalypse (again): that entire system operates on the concept of each playbook having unique abilities that only they can do. Every playbook serves an interesting role within the game, and players find it satisfying to use those powers in the most interesting way possible. At least in 4th Ed, you never have to say “I guess I just hit him with my sword.” The only satisfying way to take the power-based approach out, in my opinion, is to have a Cortex-esque system in which you build a dice pool, because otherwise, you always risk the player running out of interesting things to do. And if you do that, why the hell are we bothering to play a game at all?

We can agree to disagree on 4th Ed vs. 5th Ed. Hey, we may well have to, as I’m not going to stop loving 4th Ed and I know a decent number of people dislike it. But it has the best encounter design system I’ve ever seen, some amazing GM advice, and honestly, it’s just a really fun game for exciting heroic fantasy fights. I tend to look at the campaign I want to run and decide whether it’s 4E or 5E, because they do different things, and that’s how it should be. There’s space in the world of gaming for both.

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