5e: The best things about 4th Edition that never should have been rolled back.

As my Wednesday DM who chooses to run his games in 4th Edition can confirm, it’s not exactly my favourite edition. Fortunately, he is an excellent DM running an interesting game in a fascinating setting, so I can set aside my overall dislike for the system and enjoy the experience.

Many of you will already know that the community reaction to 4th Edition was… divisive. Many criticised the game for feeling too like an MMO. Others felt that because each class was built on exactly the same framework in the name of balance the way the classes played ultimately felt too samey. The default assumption was extremely high levels of magic, resulting in magic item glut. The sheer amount of powers and magic items at each character’s disposal can be confusing and lead to decision paralysis at the table. The combats, while offering a level of tactical nuance and satisfaction not seen in other editions past or since, can take hours to complete. 
Some players liked 4th Edition, but it’s safe to say they were a minority. 4e’s failure was a large factor in the runaway success of Pathfinder, marketed as an improved version of D&D 3.5 (3.75 if you will) that would feel similar to those fans feeling burned by 4e. Ultimately, it’s no surprise that 5e represents an extreme reversal. 
As noted, I am not a 4th Edition fan, but half of my regular tabletop group prefer it to 5th Edition. One consequence of this is that I run a 5e game but never get to play it, which is a bit of a bummer. But there is something positive to say about it too. Playing 4th Edition at the same time that I run and create for 5th Edition has allowed me to draw a lot of comparisons between the two systems, and I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: 5e‘s extreme reversal was a knee-jerk reaction to the visceral fan response, but I think it was actually a few steps too far back in time. While I don’t like 4e as a complete package, it has many great features which would have been worth keeping in some fashion.

At-Will, Encounter, and Daily Powers

A 4e character never lacks for something interesting to do. Their abilities are divided between powers they can use all the time, powers they can use a limited number of times per encounter (with a 5-minute breather required between two challenging scenarios for the second to be treated as a new encounter), and those that can be used a limited number of times per day.

In 5e, per long rest powers are equivalent to a 4e daily, and basic attacks and cantrips are equivalent to (though perhaps not as exciting options as) 4e‘s at-wills. But per short rest powers are not equivalent to 4e encounter powers, and because of this it’s quite possible for members of nonmagical classes to run out of interesting tactical choices.

Encounter powers were something my 4e fan players missed, to the point that I eventually did something about it, creating a subsystem called Signature Powers which introduces the concept of a Brief Rest (a 5 minute rest) into the 5e game, and gives all players a number of powers that recharge at the conclusion of a brief rest. Even the non-4e fans in the group appreciate the new tactical options available to them, which tells me that this encounters powers are a feature that should probably have survived the 4e reversal.

4e Powers

Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies

4e characters could reach level 30: 1-10 was the heroic tier, 11-20 was the paragon tier, and 21-30 the epic tier. I always felt that this was too much. D&D characters have insane levels of power by 20 that can already make it quite difficult to challenge them, to the point that epic-level play has never interested me. In 4e it wasn’t an optional any more, it was the norm.

However, part of this system did appeal: at 11th level, you choose a Paragon Path for your character. At 21st, an Epic Destiny. These choices resemble a 5e character’s Archetype choice, and define the shape of character’s heroic journey. But they differ in that they are not necessarily connected to any one class. Granted, some have prerequisites, and some of them were better combinations with the various classes than others, but neither is necessarily the case. There’s nothing stopping a Fighter, a Wizard, nor a Ranger from choosing the Demigod Epic Destiny, for instance.

In general a Paragon Path ties you to the world (often having to do with your race, your God, or another specific conceptual niche (in this way they resemble 3.5’s Prestige Classes). An Epic Destiny gives your character a final goal, and along the way grants them powers and abilities that support it. A Destiny might make them a demigod, an undying warrior destined to reappear for major battles throughout time, a dark wanderer who need only to start walking and appear anywhere in the multiverse, and other grand finales appropriate to a level 30 being.

These choices combined help build a 4e character into an iconic, legendary figure, add mechanical oomph to the story of the character’s journey, and they add a further level of customisation that helps two characters of the same class build out in different ways.

Unless you multiclass, 5e‘s character’s growth is very prescribed; it definitely wouldn’t hurt to have another choice (or series of choices) to make at certain points in your character’s career, unrelated to their class.

4e Paragon Path: Blooded Champion

Healing Surges 

In 4e, all characters have access to a pool of resource known as a Healing Surge. During combat, any character can spend a Healing Surge to recover some hit points by using an ability everyone has access to: their Second Wind. Healing Surges can also be spent during rests. When a leader class such as a Cleric or Warlord uses a healing power, part of the hit points recovered come from the target’s own Healing Surge pool, boosted by additional dice from the power used.

Healing Surges are a useful abstraction of a character’s vitality, as well as providing a universal font healing power which can explain how healing from multiple different sources all happen while working mechanically the same way. For instance, a Warlord, able to inspire or cajole the troops back into action, does not need to awkwardly use a Cleric’s Cure Wounds spells, but neither do they need their own unique set of rules to justify their power. Wherever the healing comes from, the Healing Surge makes it work within the rules. 

Healing Surges also empower non-healer characters to recover themselves,at least in a limited fashion, making it either a useful backup or an essential tool in a party without a dedicated healer.

The vestiges of healing surges remain in 5e: Hit Dice resemble them, though they can only be spent while resting. The Second Wind is now a feature exclusive to the Fighter, which in my opinion is a design mistake. It would be a useful ability to any hero, and probably should have remained universal. A form of Healing Surges is presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg. 266) as a healing variant, but it doesn’t interact with the game’s existing healing spells and features in a meaningful way.

Save on a 10

When a 4e character comes under the influence of one or more hostile effects, they make a saving throw for each effect currently influencing them. They don’t have saving throw modifiers, and the DCs never change: on a roll of 10 or higher, the character recovers.

This was a nice and simple mechanic. 5e‘s six different saving throws for six different abilities, any number of which might be proficient or not proficient? Less so. And fairly questionable—in theory it’s a nice and neat idea, but in practice it’s very hard to see how and when some of the saving throws might even be used. Wizards of the Coast could have provided better guidance on this, and the fact that they didn’t leads me to suspect even they were unclear when you might roll an Intelligence or Charisma saving throw that couldn’t just as easily be handled by a Wisdom save. I think we were better off back in the days of Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.

Succeeding on a 10 gave characters a strong fighting chance, and made them feel heroic. But that doesn’t mean that high level monsters become impotent. Instead of increasing save DCs, 4e simply made the effects of these monster’s powers nastier, and allowed them to use them with greater frequency (recharge powers remain in 5e, but in 4e they were probably more common).

Monster Level-Equivalency, Types and Roles

Monsters in 4e come in four flavours:

  • Regular monsters.
  • Minions are as strong as regular monsters but lack hit points—instead they are killed after one or two hits. They are treated as being worth 1/4 a regular monster. 
  • Elites are approximately as powerful as two normal monsters.
  • Solos are designed to be fought on their own, worth four normal monsters. 

The game’s designers based the balance of these monsters around the simple assumption that for a normal combat, a group of PCs would fight an equal number of typical monsters appropriate for the party’s current level. The DM could mix and match minions and elites (and even solos if they have a larger player group), as long as the overall effective number of monsters came out correct.

Having the monsters designed to be appropriate for a given PC level rather than using the more complicated CR system makes for straightforward encounter building. The only fly in the ointment was the questionable value of solos, but that’s a problem 5e‘s legendary monsters face in equal measure.

In addition to the basic encounter building blocks described above, 4e monsters are also given defined roles, similar to a PC’s class. Brutes hit hard, Soldiers have strong defenses and abilities to mark enemies and lock them down, Artillery have strong ranged attacks, Skirmishers are highly mobile and are at their most dangerous when they can move freely, Controllers can change the field of battle with area and forced movement powers, and so on.

 In 5e, these  roles can often be inferred from the context of a monster’s capabilities, but are not clearly stated. Knowing a monster’s role was a useful shorthand for how the DM should play the monster for best effectiveness in an encounter, so it would have been a useful entry to retain.

Building a 4e encounter is a fairly straightforward process involving three main considerations:

  • Pick monsters appropriate for the party level and the environment/scenario. 
  • Select the right number of monsters for your party size, making substitutes of Minions and Elites to add variance to the formula.
  • Choose a variety of monsters that occupy an interesting mix of monster roles.

With those three in mind, building an interesting 4e encounter is a quick and painless process for the DM. The burden was on the designer’s side—there needs to be enough monsters of each level and role for such a system to be viable.

Alignment Simplification

I have never liked D&D’s alignment system. My problem with it is two-fold: first, no DM I’ve ever met seems to have the same interpretation of what the alignments mean, making its value incredibly subjective.

D&D 2e/3e/5e Alignments, Muppets style.

Second, the absolute positions of most of the alignments seem realistically unattainable.

Let’s explore that last point a little, taking Lawful Good as our example. Lawful Good is the given alignment of angels and other creatures of perfect good. Beings so pure that they know no other way to be, in fact. With the exception of the Jerkful Good holier-than-thou Paladin (now thankfully mostly a thing of the past, since 5e is a lot more flexible on paladin alignments and motivations), what mortals are really so perfect that they can stand on that same pedestal? And surely even the aforementioned Paladin has the occasional darker, selfish thought, even if they ultimately do not act on them.

Humans (and Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, etc.) are interesting precisely because they are positioned between the Angels and the Demons, with voices for both camps whispering in their heads. They have the freedom to make choices and choose their own values. If we accept that about them, we have to accept that they can never be perfect examples of the alignment they aspire to.

The vast majority of mortal kind are probably closer to neutral, wavering between selfish and altruistic instincts as normal people do. The instincts that an individual chooses to accept as the correct ones and let win out show a leaning in the direction of a certain alignment absolute, rather than positioning the person at that extreme. At best, a human might be the lower case “lawful good” to an angel’s upper case Lawful Good.

Once you start thinking this way, you realise that alignment is an extremely broad spectrum rather than a set of 9 absolutes. To get a more-or-less accurate fix on where a character is positioned, you’d need to introduce other middling values somewhere between neutral and each extreme.

At which point you might as well simply say: maybe setting a character’s alignment isn’t worth the hassle”. Let the player play how they want, interpreting their PC through their own subjective lens. It may not end up being the same way other PCs and NPCs see it. That’s simply realistic.

This whole area of the game is subjective so you may not agree. I have heard good arguments against my interpretation of the system’s flaws, albeit not good enough to convince me to abandon my position.

4e took a half-way step to abandoning the alignment system of the past. The game still used alignments, but they simplified the number of alignments one could choose from. Instead of two axes the game boiled the complexity of character alignment down to a single axis. You could be lawful good, good, unaligned, evil, or chaotic evil.

Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil remained the same – the absolute examples of holiness versus depravity. Good and Evil were approximate to “Neutral Good”and “Neutral Evil” from the past system, but crucially, they were non-committal on where the character stood ethically. You could tend toward orderly or anarchic behaviour, and still be considered ultimately Good or Evil based on your causes and your motivations. Unaligned replaced the “True Neutral” position, but was a useful catch-all for characters who were either particularly ethically or morally ambiguous, or who are simply indifferent, only showing leanings towards Good or Evil when it serves them to even act.

By having less alignments than the past but having those alignments represent broader categories, the game made it far easier to correctly place your character’s alignment.

5e has done something weird. The designers clearly want alignment to be a less significant part of the game, because in this edition there are no mechanical effects that rely on the alignment system. Even Detect Evil and Good, Dispel Evil and Good, and Protection from Good and Evil don’t care whether targeted creatures are either good nor evil. Instead these specify a list of creature types encompassing all creatures not native to the material plane Seriously Wizards of the Coast, nostalgia is all well and good, but you really should have renamed these spells to Protection from Outsiders or Detect the Otherworldly or whatever. They have caused so much confusion for my players.

While rejecting the mechanical implications of alignment outright, 5e chooses to keep it in the game, as well as to return to the older model. What’s the point? Presumably it’s supposed to be a tool for thinking about character motivations. If that’s the case I’m not sure the 9-point system is the right model. The correct interpretations of the alignments are hotly debated to this day, and if players and DMs can’t agree on what a given alignment means the words written on a character’s sheet are a waste of graphite and white space. If alignment had to be in the game, a simpler system like 4e‘s might have been a better call. 

Your Thoughts

What parts of 4e or other past editions do you miss? Do you think I’m wrong? Let me know why by posting a comment! Dissenting opinions are equally welcomed as long as they remain polite and non-hostile.