What The Black Sheep Did Right
So recently we hit up 4th Edition as a one-shot. One 6-hour foray back into the black sheep of the D&D legacy at level 2, and...it was pretty cool.
Now, I'm not new to 4th Edition. I cut my teeth on 1st edition, and scaled those characters through 3.5 and Pathfinder, then we churned out a new campaign in 4th Edition. Sure, there were elements I didn't like - the out-of-left field feel, the power sets, the strange board game nature of it all - but it was still D&D, and we played it through all the same. The mechanics were just the mechanics; we still had our story to tell.
Fast-forward to 5th Edition, and our now about 4 years teaching it and running it, and returning to 4th edition is...not that bad.
There are a great many things that 4th Edition does very well.
1) Roles are clear. Each class is broken down into one of four main categories of roles: Controllers, Defenders, Leaders, and Strikers. With your lives on the line, and the mechanics to back it up, there's never a question of what role you are supposed to fill; maybe a question of a secondary role, but not the primary.
2) Tactics are KEY. Immediately, in fact. Our first fight we played like 5th edition - Goblins, no trouble, right? Wrong. Each goblin has more hit points than I do (and I'm a Minotaur Warlord), and none of us could go toe-to-toe with any one of them. It's expected at a fight that two things happen - you immediately use your Encounter powers (more powerful attacks/spells usable once per fight) to eliminate threats early and second, you draw fire to the Defender, while everyone else wrecks enemies from a protected position. Oops.
3) Action Economy Works. On your turn, you have a Standard Action, Minor Action, and a Move Action. Now, these aren't necessarily the same as 5E's Action, Bonus Action, and Movement, mainly because EVERYONE has a Minor Action (like drawing a weapon, opening a door, etc.) available, and certain powers or abilities consume one of those three actions. As long as you have the action type available, you can spend the power, so if you've got a power that's a Minor, another a Standard, and another a Move...you're using three cool things that turn. You're not moving, but still, three cool things. Also, also, you can make your Standard into two more Minor Actions instead, making the economy more flexible. When you're learning the game, that can add time, but, just as with any system, you get faster. And, because this system IS so mechanic-driven, it's rare that you'd have a strange interpretation mix-up that would bog down play anyway.
4) All of your stats are important, with three mains. For each class, there are at least three primary ability scores, and each of your powers will use one of them. Often, INTELLIGENCE is one of those, so the worth of your stats is elevated and definitively depends upon your class, which is refreshing.
Now I said before that there were certain roles meant to be fulfilled by each class. In a balanced party, you need at least one of each role represented. If you have more, good job, but one of each is definitively needed to avoid a dreaded a TPK. ;)
Controllers deal with large numbers of enemies at the same time. They favor offense over defense, using powers that deal damage to multiple foes at once, as well as subtler powers that weaken, confuse, or delay their foes. Wizards are obvious Controllers from the first Player's Handbook, with the Druid, Invoker, Psion, and Seeker joining up from the PHB 2, and PHB 3.
Defenders have the highest defenses in the game and are good for close-up offense. They are the party’s front-line combatants; wherever they’re standing, that’s where the action is. Defenders have abilities and powers that make it difficult for enemies to move past them or to ignore them in battle, taking the fire off the other more "squishy" classes. The proverbial "TANK" of the game, this is where you find your Fighters, Paladins, Warden, and Battlemind.
Leaders inspire, heal, and aid the other characters in an adventuring group. Leaders have good defenses, but their strength lies in powers that protect their companions and target specific foes for the party to concentrate on, as well as strike and give bonus attacks, movement, or defenses to allies.
These classes encourage and motivate their adventuring companions, but just because they fill the leader role doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a group’s spokesperson or commander. The party leader—if the group has one—might as easily be a charismatic warlock or an authoritative paladin. Leaders (the role) fulfill their function through their mechanics; party leaders are born through role-playing. Obvious Leaders are found in the Cleric and Warlord, with the Bard (duh), Shaman, Ardent, and Runepriest fulfilling it later.
Strikers specialize in dealing high amounts of damage to a single target at a time. They have the most concentrated offense of any character in the game. Strikers rely on superior mobility, trickery, or magic to move around tough foes and single out the enemy they want to attack. The term we might swing toward them is "DPR" or "damage-per-round," which is our way of saying you deal a bunch of damage to one dude at a time. Not always a glass cannon, the Striker might last a bit longer than a Controller, but still shouldn't act like a tank to survive. Strikers in 4E are found in the Ranger, Rogue, and Warlock (blaster), with the Avenger, Barbarian, Sorcerer, and Monk joining the fray.
If nothing else, I find it enlightening to have the roles well-defined and supported by their mechanics. When learning the game, new players can lean on only the powers they've selected; options are clear, and their expectations are understood.
In a lot of ways, a blank canvas can be terrifying, so the embedded structure of 4th edition helps support new players in selecting limited powers that further their selected role. Because of this, I thought it fun to further explore this through character building. So, for a little while, each Tuesday at noon, expect a bonus blog on character building...and we'll kick it off with the Ranger in 4th Edition. See you there.
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