D&D 4e Is Bad Actually

People occasionally try to mount a defense of D&D 4e. It was the edition war du jour from 2008 to 2014 when 4e was the current edition and Pathfinder was continuously pushing its teeth in, and that time frame being what it was, that edition war started off with people openly harassing one another over elf games and by the end had morphed into pretending that supporting the wrong elf game was racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever because it was no longer considered acceptable to harass someone over elf games, so people had to pretend that the other side’s community was guilty of some kind of actual wrongdoing. I bring this animosity up in advance because you will sometimes see people who are very committed to defending 4e or PF1, and they might wander into this post, and if they do I want everyone to know in advance what’s up. At some point, the broader 4e/PF1 community entangled their favorite TTRPG very strongly yet also completely baselessly with their sense of moral worth, and you still get lots of people who act like “4e was bad, actually” automatically implies “and therefore everyone who has ever enjoyed it is a bad person,” so instead of shrugging their shoulders and moving on they become a SungWon skit.

But anyway: Why did PF1 outperform 4e by such a wide margin? Why did 4e dwindle to nothing while PF1 consolidated nearly the entire TTRPG market around itself? PF1 got crushed by 5e just like 4e got crushed by PF1, so it’s clearly not that PF1 is some kind of unassailable holy grail of gaming. The math between skill points, attack roles, and saves are incompatible, so you can’t do things like rolling a spell attack against a Willpower save or whatever. The balance is a joke – PF1’s approach to making content was to produce huge amounts of it to the point where there are twelve different ways to make any given character concept and let the community figure out which of those builds is actually viable, to the point where their PC Shifter class is weaker than their NPC Warrior class, a class designed to be simple enough that the GM can easily slap levels of Warrior onto an existing stat block to make it stronger but not any more complex, and it’s not a huge deal if levels of Warrior are much weaker than levels of proper PC classes as a result, which they are – except the Shifter, which is a wreck. A lot of PF1 classes and prestige classes seem to have been designed by figuring out how many cool ideas they had, and then spacing them out from level 1 to level 20, while paying no attention to whether or not the abilities they were giving to a level 20 character were remotely on par with what the other classes got. And the power scale on PF1 was much more expansive than 5e’s, so a character build that fell behind too badly (and some of them did) wasn’t something you needed a calculator to notice, they were unplayable, totally unable to contribute anything to combat.

And yet, despite these flaws and the considerably larger starting capital available to 4e, 4e did not outperform PF1. 4e still does not outperform PF1, according to the Orr Group Industry’s report for Q4 2021 (the most recent as of the writing – they’re usually a quarter or two behind). 4e’s frequent use of aura effects makes it far easier to play on a virtual tabletop than physically, so Roll20 should, if anything, be giving it a slight advantage, and yet 4e is not only less popular than games still in print like 5e and PF2, not only less popular than its own competitor PF1 and predecessor 3e, not only less popular than non-English D&D alternatives like Tormenta and Das Schwarze Auge (which get some advantage in their home markets, but D&D is available in Portugese and German), not only less popular than indie spin-off games like Dungeon World and Savage Worlds (I think? Savage Worlds is listed twice, one more popular than 4e, the other less), it’s also less popular than AD&D, making it the least popular edition of D&D period. It is more popular than 13th Age, though, so it’s still more popular than games that attempt to continue iterating on 4e’s own ideas.

For anyone defending 4e, the first question to answer here is: Why do so few people want to play it? 4e benefits from the endorsement of Matt Colville and the Penny Arcade guys, and it’s still the least popular edition of D&D ever, even on a platform that makes running it quick and easy, where it’s cumbersome and difficult on most others.

Possibly a contributing factor is that 4e is so combat-focused that it comes across like a tactical war game. Its rules for skill challenges are (in theory, we’ll get to execution later) a good way to cover any kind of challenge not already covered by existing rules, but in 4e, that is every kind of challenge that isn’t combat. And individual combats take a long time, to the point where having a quick throwaway combat as a warm-up isn’t generally considered a good idea. You can’t really do dungeoncrawls or hexcrawls or mysteries in 4e, except in that your GM can obviously make up entire systems for these from scratch, which is true of every TTRPG that ever has been or conceivably could be published. 4e, a book of rules sold for money, is not worth its pricetag or the time it takes to read because the people who read it can decide to ignore it and do something else instead.

This is while you’ll sometimes see 4e defenders say that 4e was marketed wrong. It was released as a new edition in main line D&D, when it should’ve been released as a tactics-focused spin-off. This means Hasbro would’ve missed out on some sales from people duped into thinking the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons would support dungeoncrawling, but the people who actually played it would’ve mostly liked it, because those people would’ve been limited to people who wanted the combat-focused tactics game that 4e actually offered.

But for that to be the case, 4e would have to actually be an interesting tactics game, which it isn’t.

One of 4e’s marketing slogans was “the math just works,” as opposed to 3e, which famously had broken math in a million obscure ways. Each way in which the math broke down was individually convoluted and narrow, but the math failures were so omnipresent that you were very likely to run into at least a few of them in one campaign or another, with often catastrophic consequences that the GM had to fix on the spot. 4e promised to fix that, and its marketing on that point was so effective that to this day you get people using 4e as an example of a bad game with tight math, to try and make the point that paying too much attention to a game’s mathematical balance is detrimental to it.

But 4e’s math isn’t tight. It’s a trainwreck. Famously, the monsters all had about double the amount of HP that would be reasonable, turning every combat into a two-hour slog. They eventually fixed this in the third Monster Manual, and the fix of dividing monster HP in half for monsters from the first two MMs isn’t hard to apply, but it’s something you have to know to do – games that rely on this kind of community lore to make the written rules functional struggle to find an audience. 4e’s math isn’t good because you can divide monster HP in half any more than PF1’s class balance is good because you can use a tier list. The 4e fix is easier to apply from scratch, but that’s only more damning of the 4e design team, because it raises the question why they did not apply it themselves in either the first or second Monster Manual.

The original skill challenge rules were incredibly broken, and the updated rules managed to scrape things together into a system that’s theoretically good, provided you don’t mind the heavy pressure it puts on players to put build optimization before everything else when building a character just to maintain minimum acceptable competence. If the second version had been the original, we might assume that strongly incentivizing charop was a goal of the system, but given that the first version was just bad, it’s hard to be sure that the mathematical results of any 4e system was actually intentional or if they were going for something else and fucked it up.

Evaluating the math on the interaction of class powers with monsters and so forth is much harder than the fairly simple calculations involved in skill challenges, which means it’s harder to prove that it’s bad without throwing twenty pages of algebra at a reader, but also the idea that the 4e developers got the extremely complex combat math correct while messing up the much simpler skill challenge math beggars belief. If they did enough playtesting to balance combat correctly, how come their initial release of skill challenges made failure overwhelmingly more likely than success?

You’d think a 1-in-4 odds of success would be intuitively bad to someone playtesting even if they didn’t bother doing any math at all. 1-in-4 isn’t one of those things where you have to crunch the numbers to notice the effect. You’ll notice if three out of every four times you attempt something, you fail. Which suggests that either 4e did such minimal playtesting that skill challenges didn’t come up more than a handful of times (few enough that you might chalk up the failures to bad luck), or else during playtesting the GM changed how skill challenges worked on the fly to prevent a bad session, but then didn’t write down the changes they made in the actual rules that the playtest was supposed to be providing feedback on. On top of this, they evidently did not sit down and do the math on how often players would succeed at skill challenges, and this for an edition that sold itself on “the math just works!”

4e’s combat is very straightforward. You have daily powers, which refresh on an 8-hour rest, encounter powers, which refresh in about five minutes, and at-will powers, which never run out. And generally speaking, whichever encounter power you got from your most recent level up is the most powerful, followed by the one you got from the level before that, and so on. So your only real decision is deciding whether this encounter is worth burning a daily power on. 4e really liked to have powers that pushed enemies around, but this didn’t usually accomplish anything. Being moved one square back usually just results in moving one square forward, which means unless your whole party is built around exploiting these tiny adjustments, they have no effect at all.

You can imagine a version of this game where template-effect powers are common enough and movement powers effective enough that you can pack a bunch of baddies into a fireball’s radius, but these are the guys who couldn’t figure out the math on skill challenges despite branding their game with “the math just works!” Do you really think they were especially scrupulous about making sure that powers that shove enemies around were common enough and flexible enough that a party could actually pack enemies into a specific area regularly enough for that to be a viable strategy for any given combination of enemies and terrain? Even if they had, these are also the guys who gave monsters about double the HP they needed for a good experience, so even if you do have a party build that can actually do that, your AoE nova attack would only take off like a third of the targets’ HP, and it probably used a daily power to do it. And really, if you want a combat to be about maneuvering enemies into position for a single decisive blow, that means you need everyone in the party working towards the exact same strategy not only during combat but in character creation and advancement, at which point you should probably have the whole party run by a single person.

4e isn’t totally bereft of good ideas, so when people like Matt Colville point to a cool thing from 4e that you could port into other editions, they aren’t lying or anything. Attack of the Clones was not a good film, but they introduced super battle droids, and the Mandalorian was not worse for featuring them in a few flashback scenes. It’s perfectly common for bad media to have redeeming qualities that can be salvaged out of them.

But the answer to “is 4e fun to play” is empirically “no” for a strong majority of people, and given its flaws, that’s not at all surprising.

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